tampabay.com

Bus stop cuts hit hard at rural school

By BILL MAXWELL
Published July 25, 2007


WIMAUMA - What's more important than getting children to school? Perhaps, it's getting them safely home after the bell rings for the day.

But if Hillsborough County school officials have their way, about 200 children who live within 2 miles of Wimauma Elementary School will have to walk to and from campus when classes begin Aug. 20.

Walking 2 miles may not seem like an ordeal to the rest of us, but if your address is in this agricultural outpost, you know that real danger awaits your child.

When I learned, in a St. Petersburg Times article, that parents, mostly Hispanic migrant farm workers, are worried about the elimination of 17 of their bus stops, I visited Wimauma. After seeing the area for myself, I'm disappointed that officials would force these young children to walk to school.

Wimauma Elementary is in one of the poorest, most isolated parts of the county. It sits near busy State Road 674, on which semitrailer trucks drive 55 mph or faster. I know because I saw them. Students must cross 674 to get to campus. Few of the other streets in the vicinity, all of which the students must take to get to school, have street lights and sidewalks. Even along 674, the town's main thoroughfare, the sidewalk is on the side away from the school.

North and Center streets, which many students must use, have no stop signs, no traffic lights and no sidewalks. Several vehicles sped past me. These are dangerous streets, with overgrown lots strewn with trash and debris. Some had abandoned vehicles and empty buildings. Dogs, some appearing to be ill or potentially dangerous if provoked, wandered at will.

Also along North, Central and most other streets, I saw disheveled men, some apparently homeless or unemployed, killing time and otherwise doing what such men do. As far I knew, some could've been in the group of 22 sex offenders and sexual predators a state law enforcement Web site says live within 5 miles of the school.

Officials claim that Wimauma is not being singled out for cuts, which, supposedly, are part of a pilot program for southeastern Hillsborough County that will become countywide next school year. The School Board argues that the cuts are necessary because of money, a shortage of drivers and an attempt to match state service guidelines permitting students to walk up to 2 miles.

Fine, but why hit Wimauma Elementary first? And why, for that matter, hit the town of Wimauma at all?

Again, officials have a rationalization: Other east Hillsborough communities, such as the subdivisions of Lithia and Bloomingdale - dubbed "growth areas" - also will lose their bus stops. But the little-publicized reality is that these subdivisions have elementary schools inside their protected boundaries. Children there are never in comparable danger.

As Roy Moral, the Wimauma Elementary School principal, told the Times: "(Wimauma) is not a suburban area. This is a rural area."

In other words, safe boundaries don't protect Wimauma's children. And because most of the migrant parents must leave for work before 6 a.m. and return from work after school, they won't be able to take their children to school or pick them up.

These children will be forced to brave the area's dangerous streets alone.

I am convinced that if Wimauma's farm-working parents had the political and economic clout of parents in, say, Lithia or Bloomingdale, school officials would create a way to keep the buses running.

Meanwhile, all Hillsborough residents should be concerned about this act of insensitivity.