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Busing of Dunedin students through busy intersection still not resolved

Michael Bessette says the Education Department has been flooded with appeals for the exception.

Michael Bessette says the Education Department has been flooded with appeals for the exception.

DUNEDIN — Two state agencies have weighed in, yet it's still anybody's guess whether busing will actually cease next school year for more than 50 San Jose Elementary students.

In late March, the Florida Department of Education told city and Pinellas school officials that the state Department of Transportation would need to study whether State Road 580 near the entrance to downtown is too dangerous for students to walk across.

In early April, state transportation officials cited high traffic volumes and the potential for crashes in its recommendation against a student crosswalk the city had reluctantly suggested for the intersection's east side.

Now, local officials find themselves back at square one.

That's because the state reimburses school districts the cost of busing students who live within a school's 2-mile walk zone only under certain circumstances.

The intersection where SR 580 meets Main Street, Skinner Boulevard and Bass Boulevard doesn't meet the state's thresholds for high traffic volume, high speed limit or other factors. But local officials argue that the oddly angled interchange's downhill grade and prevalence of red-light runners create a special circumstance.

Pinellas schools associate superintendent Michael Bessette says his office has bombarded the state Department of Education with phone calls and letters asking it to make an exception for San Jose Elementary.

"It's not a happy intersection. But us feeling it's not good doesn't necessarily declare it as hazardous," Bessette said. "Our goal is to try to get it (deemed) hazardous so we can be reimbursed for busing."

The issue stems from a late 2012 school district review, which discovered a mapping error that had used the wrong school entrance when measuring the distance from students' homes to the school. A recalculation determined the children actually live within San Jose's 2-mile walk zone, so they don't qualify for busing.

The announcement stoked fears among parents, city officials and school leaders about youngsters having to walk and battle rush-hour traffic on five-lane SR 580.

If the state rejects local officials' request, Bessette said Pinellas County School Board members would have to debate whether to absorb the cost of busing or approach Dunedin about sharing fees.

"We'll work very closely with the city to be as equitable as we can and ensure the safety of the students," Bessette said.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or ksummers@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Busing of Dunedin students through busy intersection still not resolved 05/03/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 6:54pm]
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