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A Times Editorial

Idea to pare school bus service too risky, costly

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

You have to admire Wendy Tellone's willingness to question some of the school district's most mundane and traditional practices, some of which were sacrosanct to her predecessors. Since she was appointed superintendent of schools in September 2001, Tellone has cast fresh eyes on a number of operations, with the goal of saving money and time. Cutting back on the number of district-owned cars driven by administrators and juggling the traditional start and end of the school day are two examples of such initiatives.

But one of Tellone's recent money-saving ideas goes too far, and the cost to students and their parents would be too high.

Tellone says she can save $460,000 a year if buses no longer pick up students who live within 2 miles of a school. That dollar amount goes down proportionately with distance, i.e., $380,000 within a 11/2-mile radius, $260,000 within 1 mile, and $88,000 within a half-mile. The savings would come from the need for fewer buses, drivers and fuel.

Tellone points out that state law does not require school districts to transport students who live within 2 miles of their school and refers to the district's long-standing practice of doing so as a "courtesy."

Despite what state law allows, replete with its arbitrary maximum distances, providing transportation to all students who need it, regardless of their proximity to a school, is a fundamental service.

As evidenced by the negative initial reaction to Tellone's idea, parents have an expectation -- a very reasonable one -- that their taxes will be used to supply such a basic function as transportation. In many households, both parents work, and if they cannot rely on the bus to pick up and deliver their children, whether it be at their front door, a day care center or at a sitter's house, it may jeopardize their livelihoods. Students should not be penalized because their home happens to be near a school or because their parents cannot drive them.

Clearly, dropping service to this segment of students will result in more of them becoming "latchkey," meaning they usually will be home alone until one of their parents returns from work.

But, most important, forcing those children to walk to school creates an unnecessary risk. Hernando County, in particular, does not have an ample network of sidewalks. At best, it can be described as hit and miss, which has been a flaw in the planning process as the county has developed.

Under this proposal, many students would be forced to walk on roads or streets with traffic whizzing by or to traipse across lawns on private property. The fact that half these pedestrian commutes would take place shortly after dawn, when visibility is often poor, increases the potential for accidents.

It follows that the Sheriff's Office, which oversees the school crossing guard program, would have to hire more guards to look out for more walking students.

Tellone has asked the board for permission to study her idea in more detail. We applaud the superintendent for continuing to seek ways to save money and support a closer examination of the issue. If nothing else, such a detailed study will pinpoint the neighborhoods that need sidewalks and provide the School Board with details about exactly how many students would be affected by such a move.

However, if saving money is the ultimate goal, Tellone and her staff would do better to target expenditures that have a less-direct effect on the routine safety and logistics of students and their parents.

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