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First day of school in Pinellas brings busing confusion, angst

ST. PETERSBURG — Bus 20835 braked to a stop at 6:17 a.m. Tuesday and dropped off the first passenger of the new school year: Confusion.

Dozens of students from at least seven Pinellas high schools — clumped on the corners at busy 66th Street and Fifth Avenue N — strained in the darkness to see if the bus was theirs.

The driver barked the name of a school into a speaker, but what muffled out sounded like the teacher in "Peanuts." Kids looked at each other droopy-eyed before a handful hoofed it across the street.

"Seminole, Seminole, Seminole," the driver told them at the door.

Oh. Wrong bus.

Said one parent/lawyer who stood watch: "This is bull----."

• • •

Say this for the rest of the school year in Pinellas. It's bound to be better than Day 1.

Hundreds of parents on Tuesday complained about new bus stops on busy thoroughfares — brought on by last year's massive budget cuts — and more than 300 trekked to the district's Largo headquarters with questions about school assignments.

The response from superintendent Julie Janssen: The district should have started the open enrollment period months earlier. And it needed to better explain to parents that "arterial" transportation means bus stops on main roads.

"We could have done a better job putting that out," she said.

A little perspective:

The vast majority of Pinellas's nearly 104,000 students got to school safely and on time. And the number of complaints logged by the district's transportation center — 1,239 — was less than the 1,350 it received on the first day last year.

Nevertheless, district transportation director Rick McBride said his staff will look into complaints that some stops are in dangerous locations. Arterial stops were chosen based on student population in the area, stop lights and stop signs and available parking for parents waiting for their children.

"We'll be at the most troublesome stops morning and afternoon for the next few days meeting with parents face to face," McBride said. "We're planning on doing that until all of this is resolved."

Some stops could change, he said.

• • •

Parents streamed into the district's student assignment office throughout the day Tuesday. Most arrived hoping to get a school other than the one to which they'd been assigned to last spring. Others had moved over the summer but their children had not been assigned to another school.

Some had issues no one could explain.

Nan Brosius, whose grandson attended Ozona Elementary in Palm Harbor for four years, found out Monday he wasn't on the school's roll. A computer check at the front office revealed 9-year-old Tre was registered at San Jose Elementary. In Dunedin.

"I understand there are problems, but it's not Tre's fault," Brosius said. "It's an error of some sort that I'm sure will be straightened out.

"I'm not leaving here until it is."

Janet Campbell waited with her 8-year-old, Kristen. During open enrollment, Campbell got a seat at Shore Acres Elementary in St. Petersburg for her older daughter — but not for Kristen.

"They told me that if one child got in, the other would, too," Campbell said. "But that didn't happen."

Jim Madden, associate superintendent of student assignment, said the district will continue to do what it can to accommodate families. But school capacities and restrictions on class size make it impossible to satisfy everyone, he said.

• • •

From a St. Petersburg parent: At Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Ninth Avenue N, two homeless men argued next to her son's bus stop while kids milled all over the intersection.

From a Treasure Island parent: Residents at a condo complex threatened to call police because she parked in the road in front of it. There was no other parking, said Janis McAdam.

"I told 'em to call the School Board if they had a problem with it," she said.

Late Tuesday, district officials gathered to assess the day, concentrating on transportation issues.

Among the problems they identified: Too many students showing up at some arterial stops. A possible reason: Parents' ability to go to a stop other than the one to which they were assigned without alerting the district that they'd switched.

The stops drawing the most complaints: the one at Dr. Martin Luther King Street Jr. and Ninth Avenue N and one at 38th Ave N and 49th Street.

Then there was the one at 66th Street N, set up to serve students from several schools.

By 6:40 a.m. six buses had pulled up. An ambulance with lights flashing burst out of the fire station on one corner where some parents had parked. And the dentist on another corner griped about cars taking up spaces reserved for his patients, who often begin arriving at 6:30 a.m.

Through it all, a steady trickle of students crossed multiple lanes of traffic.

• • •

Candy White, 62, had especially good reason to be worried about the bus stop on 66th. Her daughter, Carey, a 17-year-old at Gibbs High, has an anxiety disorder that makes her afraid of confusing situations.

When the Gibbs bus pulled up Tuesday, Carey was the first on board.

"Bye, Mom," she said. "I love you."

White said she was relieved. For now.

Times staff writer Brant James and Times correspondent Lee Logan contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

By the Numbers

103,831

First-day enrollment

1,239

Complaints received Tuesday at the district's transportation call, (727) 587-2020. Call center hours: Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-6 p.m.

For more information: www.pcsb.org/is/trans

300+

Parents who came to district headquarters with school assignment issues.

Student Assignment Office, (727) 588-6210 or check out www.pcsb.org/choice

First day of school in Pinellas brings busing confusion, angst 08/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, September 14, 2009 10:40am]
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