MERCED -- About 900 high school students at Merced, Atwater and Livingston campuses will have to figure out a new way to get to classes later this month as transportation cutbacks approved in the spring take effect.
In mid-March, Merced Union High School District trustees cut busing for students living within a five-mile radius of their campuses and furloughed 15 bus drivers.
Cutting 20 bus routes to six saved the district $1.1 million in the current fiscal year budget, school officials said.
Leonard Kahn, the district's assistant superintendent for business services, is hoping history repeats itself and students will still find their way to school.
"Our families have historically provided great support to students in getting to school and we're confident that will continue," Kahn said. "No one knows the answer to the question if the change could hamper attendance."
A second series of town-hall-style meetings will be held Monday through Friday at area high schools. New routes will be discussed and questions will be answered.
Kahn is hoping more parents will attend this time. Meetings held at the end of June only attracted 16 people.
Superintendent Scott Scambray said the district needs feedback from parents so it can get an idea of how many students will use Merced County Transit System bus services. Passes for The Bus will be available for purchase at local high schools.
"It's very important to get an idea how many people will take The Bus," Scambray said. "It's most important to meet the needs of the kids."
Scambray defended the board's March 14 transportation cuts. He said the district has some tough financial times ahead, perhaps facing a $5 million deficit if Gov. Jerry Brown's November tax initiative fails.
Kahn said he has spoken with several parents about pending bus serv- ice cuts, and that while all parents are concerned about the decline in serv- ice, the contacts have been positive.
Lori Flanders, public affairs officer for the Merced County Association of Governments, which governs the transit system, said a 50 percent discount will be offered for first-semester student riders. Those passes will be available for $90, and students can buy a 31-day pass for $45.
Flanders said they may have to wait a week or two after school starts to see what the needs are. She said about 60,000 county transit system riders last year were of student age.
"We still have to figure out routes and aren't sure what the needs are going to be," Flanders said. Transit system buses serve all the urban areas in the county using a system of fixed routes.
Trustee Ida Johnson, the lone board member to abstain last March when cuts were instituted, remains concerned about how some students will be able to afford bus fares.
"We need to pick it up somehow," Johnson said. "It's one of the things we need to address. We need to find some funding or get donations."
Kahn said the district's website will have new bus routes posted by Aug. 10. He said there will be some minor changes related to safety, primarily moving pickup and dropoff points away from state Highways 59 and 140.
Ninety-five percent of the district's furloughed bus drivers received other jobs within the district last month, said Sandy Schiber, assistant superintendent for human resources.
Kahn said the district has 28 buses in its fleet. Six bus drivers and three mechanics are still working and 550 to 600 students will continue to be bused from all five campuses, as well as Yosemite and Sequoia high schools and the teen mothers program.
While some of the bus fleet will be idled, Kahn said about 20 buses would be in use at any one time -- especially during the winter sports season, and with field trips and other extracurricular activities.
Besides, Kahn said, old school buses don't command much on the used market.
"If we exchanged them for cash, we would get pennies on the dollar," Kahn said. "It's not exactly a bull market in school buses."
Kahn said he has driven each of the remaining routes with Wynn Simon, director of transportation. At the farthest point, buses travel about 17 miles in the Snelling area, taking students to Merced High School.
Board President Kurt Kollmann said he hasn't had any contact with parents over the issue since the March board meeting where cuts were made.
"I don't anticipate it being a huge problem," Kollmann said.
Kahn said the district's child welfare and attendance office has a very well-developed formal process to address student attendance. Keeping students engaged through the use of after-school programs and other means will help keep attendance figures up, he added.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.