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Odds are that Memphis children will make it to school, but, as any gambler knows, there are always some losers.

Administrators in the Tennessee district learned the day before school started that prospects for some of the 17,000 children who ride buses would be dicey. The company that runs the district's buses was short on drivers, and its recruitment efforts were not paying off.

So, for the past two weeks, catching a bus has been short of a sure thing. On the first day of school, as many as 800 children were left standing by the road as school began.

The culprits, it seems, are the Mississippi casinos just south of the city that lure many Tennesseans with free shuttle rides. The casino buses offer better pay to drivers, but have left many schoolchildren playing a roadside game of chance.

Officials for Mayflower Contract Services, the company that Memphis pays more than $7 million a year for buses, said transportation roulette is about over.

After blaring their plea for drivers on radio and television and at shopping malls, Mayflower officials say they hit the jackpot: 60 drivers are now in training, and applications are still rolling in.

No one has suggested a conspiracy yet, but someone should tell the film director Oliver Stone about the suspicious plague that has hit some of the nation's schools.

Last month, a Connecticut school made headlines when mold and mildew spent a muggy weekend coating the school's walls, books, and furniture. It appears that about the same time, fungi also struck a 760-student school in Bangor, Pa.

Last week, Bangor school officials delayed the opening of the district's five schools while environmental-air-quality experts and engineers studied the outbreak at Domenick DeFranco Elementary School.

School officials vexed by similar problems in Virginia, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania have called to compare notes.

"It appears that this is not unique," said Ned Fairchild, the school's principal. "But it sure is unique for us."

Children will return to class this week in all the Bangor schools except DeFranco, which will open when officials are sure the building is safe.

--Lonnie Harp & Drew Lindsay

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