By Tamas Mondovics
As anticipated, Hillsborough County Schools Board’s 6-1 decision last month to end its nearly 20-year-long courtesy busing offered to thousands of students living within two miles of their schools was met with much concern.
Parents living in communities like FishHawk Ranch immediately turned to social media in hopes of finding the best way to come to terms with the loss of courtesy busing, a term that many have never heard, and a service that most thought was the norm.
“Heavy traffic, long car lines and safety has been our concern for several years. It’s funny how the beginning of the school year the school board said the area was deemed hazardous conditions and we were always told that the solution is to utilize the buses,” said FishHawk resident Kathi Hayes. “Traffic continues to increase as more residents move into the area, suddenly, the area isn’t hazardous and now we are losing the buses, which makes no sense.”
To explain the decision, school officials mailed out a comprehensive packet to nearly 7,500 middle and high school students who will be affected by the change at the start of the 2017-2018 school year, saving approximately $3 million for the District.
“Parents of elementary students will have more time to plan,” said HCPS spokesperson, Tanya Arja. “We will end elementary courtesy busing as well, but not until the 2018-19 school year.” School officials estimate the total saving at nearly $10 million.
The state provides funding to transport students who reside more than two miles from their assigned school, for pre-kindergarten or special education students who require transportation living inside the two-mile boundary.
Students not meeting the state’s hazardous criteria are known as courtesy riders, thus the term courtesy busing.
“Whether or not a student’s walk to school is hazardous is determined by state criteria such as traffic count, speed limits, traffic path, and whether or not traffic signals are controllable,” Arja said.
The district currently has more than 4,000 elementary and 7,500 middle and high school students living within two miles of a school.
Arja said that buses were awarded based on temporary hazards, such as construction zones, but were not removed once the hazard was corrected.
“For years students who no longer met the state’s hazardous criteria, continued to be bussed, costing the district millions of dollars that could be used in the classrooms,” she said, adding that the phasing out courtesy busing was recommended by the Gibson Consulting Group, as a means to reduce spending.
It took nearly five months for school officials to determine that of the 7,495 students within the District’s 8 areas only 803 meet the state criteria.
Similar to most communities, none of the 1,000 FishHawk Ranch area students attending Newsome High, Randall and Barrington Middle schools who receive courtesy busing met the state hazardous criteria, school officials said.
“Our streets are already gridlocked with school traffic,” Hayes said adding, “I can’t imagine what it will look like next year with carlines, students hauling heavy backpacks walking in the heat and afternoon thunderstorms!”
That is just what the “FishHawk Safe Bus for US!!! Advocacy for Safe School Bus Transportation Group” on Facebook planned to find out by means of a ‘Safe Bus for Us Drive In,’ scheduled for Tuesday, January 3, 2017. Parents were asked to drive their student(s) to school to demonstrate the impact to roads and traffic among other things, losing the buses would cause.
School Board member, Melissa Snively, the only vote against the Board’s decision agreed when she reportedly said that the savings of several million dollars are not worth the safety risk and disruption, a notion that was obviously rejected.
Parents who feel that the walking path for their students is unsafe may fill out a review request form, which was included in their packet and can also be found on the District’s website.
The district will also conduct community meetings in the coming months to advise families on alternate ways to get their children to school, including carpools, organized walking groups and public transportation.
For more information, please visit www.sdhc.k12.fl.us.