Parents say a walk is a dangerous trek

About 200 pupils will have to walk up to 2 miles in an area not built for pedestrians.

By Saundra Amrhein
Published July 22, 2007

WIMAUMA - The cafeteria, small and hot, was packed with 100 parents and their children squirming on small seats.

The mothers and fathers -- some pushing Dora the Explorer strollers, others freshly changed from work clothes - waited patiently for the school district officials to speak.

Children living within 2 miles of Wimauma Elementary School will no longer have bus service when school starts Aug. 20, Karen Strickland, a bus system manager, told the crowd.

For many, Thursday night's meeting was the first they heard about changing school bus stops.

Strickland described a financial crunch, using words like "best practices" and "state criteria." Grim-faced parents had different issues. Sexual predators along the routes to school. Speeding trucks. Early work hours that conflict with school times. The change affects about 200 children who will now have to walk to school, up from 30 last year, according to school officials. The district deleted 17 bus stops in Wimauma as part of a pilot project for southeastern Hillsborough County that will expand to the rest of the county next school year.

Magnet schools, school choice and a shortage of bus drivers are behind the cuts, Strickland said. The state doesn't reimburse the county for transporting children who live within 2 miles of a school. State standards allow students to walk up to 2 miles to school.

How, parents asked, could school officials expect small children to walk 2 miles in a rural town with few to no sidewalks, across a highway with trucks hauling lumber and produce?

Parents grew agitated when district officials repeated answers.

"Why are we paying taxes? For this?" yelled Felipe Orenday, the father of a 7-year-old boy.

In a town where parents leave for the fields and other jobs by sunrise, children walk straight from the house to the corner bus stop. In the afternoon, many students take the bus to Bethune Park, where parents pick them up after work. That bus stop will be cut.

"There are a lot of [stray] dogs in Wimauma that are going to bite these children, a lot of bad people looking for children," said Juanita Ortiz, mother of girls ages 10 and 8.

The school opens its doors at 7:30 a.m., but parents said early work hours mean they won't be able to drive their children to school. Wimauma's roadsides are overgrown, their shoulders often strewn with broken beer bottles, they said. Cars race through the side streets, and homeless or unemployed men aimlessly roam the neighborhood in the afternoon.

Twenty-two sex offenders -including four sexual predators -- live within 5 miles of Wimauma Elementary School, according to a state law enforcement Web site.

Strickland said the district transportation department can't fix law enforcement and community problems. State Road 674 isn't considered hazardous under state guidelines, she said, and the lack of sidewalks isn't enough to warrant busing as long as shoulders and rights of way exist.

Sheriff's Maj. John Marsicano attended the meeting and told parents he would try to get a second crossing guard for children along State Road 674.

Parents talked of starting a petition, but district officials told them they aren't singling out Wimauma. Families throughout the county will go through similar changes within the next two years.

Wimauma Elementary principal Roy Moral said his families face unique problems. He spent much of Friday trying to find solutions to the busing crisis.

"Many of our parents, because either they are blue collar or migrant farm workers, they have very limited options," he said. "During season they have to be out there at 6 a.m. And if they aren't working in the local area they are being driven down to Myakka City."

The area offers limited day care options, even if the parents could afford them, he said.

"This is not a suburban area. This is a rural area," he said.

Moral is considering opening the school earlier, either 6 a.m. or 6:30 a.m., so parents have a safe place to drop off the children before they leave for work.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.