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Bus cutbacks put students in harm's way in Wimauma

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published July 25, 2007


It is incredible the Hillsborough County school system would even think of forcing about 200 elementary-age children to walk up to 2 miles to school in a rural area along a major highway crowded with construction and produce trucks. Parents across the county should be concerned if this is what passes for common sense in a bureaucracy overhauling its entire transportation system.

School officials, looking to save money, have proposed scaling back Hillsborough's busing program. The county wants to more closely match state service guidelines, which allow students to walk up to 2 miles. That means about 200 children who live within 2 miles of Wimauma Elementary School will no longer be bused when school starts Aug. 20.

The decision, as the Times' Saundra Amrhein chronicled Sunday, would force children to walk on Wimauma's roadsides, which are overgrown and lack sidewalks. Parents also are concerned that the streets are busy, littered with debris and a hangout for unemployed men.

The district's transportation program has been a mess for years, and it is good the county is rethinking its service in a comprehensive way. Forcing students to walk farther might be an appropriate trade-off for making the system more efficient. But safety needs to be the first priority. Officials also need to recognize that some neighborhoods face unique challenges.

Many parents in Wimauma, a largely poor, Hispanic community, work in the fields. They are at work already when the bus comes for their child and do not have the luxury to reschedule their work day. Forcing children here and in many rural areas to walk poses a greater hardship than it would in subdivisions or urban neighborhoods, which typically have sidewalks, street lights, crosswalks, stormwater collection drains and other safety features. Stray dogs, bad weather and isolated stretches also are safety issues to take into account when looking at service in rural areas.

While Wimauma's principal is considering opening school early, these children would still walk home at the end of the day. Officials need to recognize these families have few options. The district needs to make an exception in this and any other reasonable case. It also needs to show more sensitivity to families in the months ahead as it retools bus service countywide.