DUNEDIN — Frustration over plans to stop busing San Jose Elementary students across a five-lane state road mounted this week as city commissioners learned their concerns about safety might go unheard — unless they can sum them up in three minutes.
Dunedin leaders have asked for time on the Pinellas County School Board's Feb. 12 regular meeting agenda to talk about the issue, but City Manager Rob DiSpirito said he has learned they will be given only three minutes, like other speakers, to make their case.
Since the School Board does not respond to commenters during regular meetings, the board would defer any discussion of the Dunedin leaders' concern to a Feb. 21 workshop. And the School Board does not take citizen input during workshops, DiSpirito said.
"My God, if we can't figure out an effective way to communicate to a school board, how do we expect residents to?" an exasperated Mayor Dave Eggers asked after hearing the news from DiSpirito at a recent commission meeting. "We should be able to effectively get in front of our representatives."
For weeks, commissioners have been trying to speak directly to School Board members. They hope to persuade the board to reconsider its plan to stop busing service next school year for about 50 students. It turns out the students live within 2 miles of their school, and that means they don't qualify for busing.
Commissioners say the change would force children as young as 5 to cross rush-hour traffic on State Road 580 near the entrance to downtown Dunedin.
The move could force the city to pick up the $25,000 annual tab for three crossing guards plus a one-time $10,000 cost for crosswalk improvements — or pay as much as $56,000 a year for buses.
Dunedin commissioners have their own workshop planned for Feb. 12. However, Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski wants her colleagues to skip it to attend the School Board meeting and hopefully resolve the issue before the board starts crafting next year's budget and bus schedules.
"We need to show up in a large group. We need to have a presence," Bujalski said. "If I go down there by myself, I'm going to get nowhere. We need to have a plan and it needs to be a priority."
With the three-minute limit, however, Commissioner Julie Scales said a more effective approach would be to figure out how to obtain a dedicated presentation and discussion slot on a School Board agenda.
Commissioners agreed that they would decide for themselves whether to attend the School Board meeting, while DiSpirito explores ways to get them a lengthier time slot.
"We need to be strong on this," Eggers said. "For crying out loud, we represent 36,000 residents, give or take. They ought to at least want to hear what we have to say."
Commissioners also asked staff to find out why the Florida Department of Transportation deemed the SR 580 intersection too dangerous for a golf cart crossing, while the school district says FDOT data deems the road safe for young children to cross.
A schools safety auditor told commissioners last month that a signalized intersection isn't considered "hazardous" unless at least 4,000 cars pass through daily. The angled intersection where State Road 580 meets Main Street, Skinner Boulevard and Bass Boulevard sees only 1,400 cars a day, according to FDOT data.
Commissioner Ron Barnette described his own recent experience navigating the intersection.
"When people whip through there, they're looking at that light. And the angle of the intersection almost obscures part of that because there's many lanes and you have to look over other cars," he said. "I cannot in my right mind support the prospect of forcing elementary school kids to cross there, any more than a crossing guard."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.