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Choice disrupts school bus system

Parents complain of delays and of not being able to contact school authorities to work out timely solutions.

THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published August 21, 2003

LARGO - Well into the third week of classes, the Pinellas school bus system is straining to keep up with the increased demands of the new choice plan.

Buses continue to arrive late at some schools and neighborhood stops. Parents who call to report problems or request route changes say they are met with hopelessly jammed phone lines, unreturned calls or district employees who say they can't solve their problem.

"I think what I was really upset about was that no options were provided me," said Maria Cabrera of St. Petersburg, whose son chose Dunedin High for its architecture academy.

She gave district officials a week's notice of her recent move, followed their instructions for getting her son's bus stop changed, but ended up with a logistical nightmare after a district administrator failed to process her request.

On Tuesday, her son stayed home because Cabrera had no way to get him to Dunedin and also make it to her job as a financial coordinator for Eckerd Corp. in Largo. By Wednesday, the problem was closer to being solved, but Cabrera remained upset about her experience.

The attitude was "that's just the way it is," she said. "It didn't matter what my troubles were. I was in tears because you feel like you're in a dead end. I just didn't hear anybody say, "This is how I can help you.' "

The problems, which have a variety of causes, should be corrected in about two weeks, said Terry Palmer, the district's transportation director.

"We've got some work to do, there's no doubt about it," he said. "We've just gotten slammed with an awful lot of extra work, some of which was anticipated."

Late buses and turmoil from route changes are an annual occurrence the first week or so of classes, which began Aug. 5. So district officials assessing the debut of choice initially dismissed early bus complaints as the usual fare. But many problems have seeped into the third week of school and probably won't be solved until September.

The reason is choice, said Palmer.

The new system allows students to choose schools well out side their old neighborhood zones - meaning an additional 13,000 children are eligible for bus rides this year. As a result, about 200 new routes were added and many bus stops were eliminated to save time. Most routes must cover more ground than in the past.

Palmer said of his routing staff: "I've got the same 10 people doing the work from last year, when there wasn't choice."

Over the summer, the transportation office struggled to keep up with thousands of students still being placed in schools. Then, as Aug. 5 approached, the district was hit with a "huge influx" of latecomers, Palmer said.

They were students who had just moved into the district or whose parents waited until the 11th hour to register them. The number was far in excess of previous years, he said, and many of them needed bus rides.

Many bus drivers just getting used to their new routes have had to revise them repeatedly to accommodate the new students.

Yet another problem: schools where bus lanes are too small for bus traffic that is two to three times thicker because of choice. The clogged lanes have led to delays.

Palmer said his staff is working overtime to correct the problems.

Meanwhile, parents and students have been caught by surprise.

Saleem Syed-Ali, a St. Petersburg Times copy editor, documented for district officials how late his two children arrived home from school last week from Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School and James B. Sanderlin Elementary in St. Petersburg. The buses were an average of 28 minutes behind schedule in the afternoons, he wrote.

Palmer assured him in an e-mail: "Believe me, my tolerance for late buses is probably even less than yours."

Kathy Wiley of Indian Rocks Beach said her son's bus to Largo Middle School was chronically late the first two weeks and caused him to miss his entire first period class on Monday. Tuesday was the first day it arrived on time.

Many parents complained in interviews about the district's transportation help line, 547-7174. Dial, and the sound is usually a busy signal.

"I am on the phone constantly hitting redial, redial, redial, redial," said Barbara Ruthberg, one of a group of Palm Harbor neighbors trying frantically to get a stop changed for three girls who attend East Lake High School. The location of the stop forces the girls to walk along a dangerous stretch of Lake Tarpon Drive with potholes, no sidewalks and high bushes before dawn. They also walk past an adult entertainment business and a liquor store on U.S. 19, Ruthberg said.

The parents' sense of urgency increased Tuesday when one of them was the victim of a road rage incident along Lake Tarpon Road that resulted in the arrest of the 22-year-old driver.

The families have submitted pictures of the road, sent a certified letter and called constantly for two weeks, rarely getting an answer and ultimately no help. Ruthberg said she takes her cell phone to the bathroom and to bed, not wanting to miss the return call that never comes.

Palmer said the staff on the help line was trimmed after the first week of school.

In the past, the district's transportation officials have solved problems with school bus stops within 24 hours, Ruthberg said. "But 21/2 weeks is ridiculous."

First-week bus problems happen every year, but "not like this," said Teri Kobisch, the mother of a third-grade girl at McMullen-Booth Elementary. She said bus problems have eroded the confidence of parents after six kindergarteners were dropped off at the wrong stop on the first day of school and a third-grade boy got on the wrong bus, leaving his parents to wonder where he was for an hour. A continuing problem with one route caused several children to get tardy slips the first two weeks of school, she said.

The problems have been solved, but not before parents did "a lot of complaining," Kobisch said. "You don't mess with our kids."

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