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Courtesy bus cuts test Hernando County students, parents first week of school

Crossing guard William Graf, 70, watches the morning rush hour wind down near Explorer K-8 on Friday. Principals say there has been an increase in the number of students arriving by car.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Crossing guard William Graf, 70, watches the morning rush hour wind down near Explorer K-8 on Friday. Principals say there has been an increase in the number of students arriving by car.

SPRING HILL — Stephanie Reinhardt had walked only a few hundred yards from the air-conditioned comfort of Explorer K-8 but beads of sweat already glistened on her forehead.

Last year, the 14-year-old eighth-grader rode the bus, but the School Board voted last summer to cut service for students who live within 2 miles to save about $800,000. Some 2,400 students were affected, including Reinhardt.

Now she's walking.

"It's ridiculous," she said.

"They're cutting the budget in the wrong places," said Talyria Preston, another Explorer eighth grader walking home earlier this week.

The sentiments are shared by plenty of students and parents whose routines were upended, forcing them to scramble to make arrangements to get students to school. The move also compounded the controlled chaos of dropoff and dismissal during the first few days of school.

By Friday, though, the district had begun to settle into something like a routine, adjusting to the new transportation reality.

"A big sincere thank you to the 98 percent of the people who have really been cooperative, have understood the constraints the district is under and worked with us effectively," superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

Blavatt got a taste of life after courtesy busing Tuesday when he walked with a Hernando High student a part of the way to school. He arrived back in his office with a dripping brow and damp pants legs after trodding through high, wet grass along the roadside.

The district is not tracking how former courtesy bus riders are now getting to school, but principals say there has been a marked increase in the number of students arriving by car and on foot or bike.

At Explorer, the increase in vehicle traffic contributed to the near-gridlock conditions at the intersection at the school's entrance on Northcliffe Boulevard. Hernando Sheriff's deputies turned the signal to flashing yellow and started to direct traffic.

"If it weren't for the deputies, we couldn't handle this corner," crossing guard William Graf, 70, said Friday morning.

More help is on the way, though. School officials are working with the county to allow for the opening of Explorer's rear gate, Blavatt said. That access point would be for vehicles picking up and dropping off students in kindergarten through second grade, which accounts for most of the school's traffic, Stratton said.

That's good news for Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who visited Explorer this week and agreed it was "a mess." Because his agency is struggling with its own resources, Nienhuis said he would prefer that deputies patrol around schools, not direct traffic.

"Our traffic units more than ever are hanging around those schools to make the kids are getting there safe, whether they're riding with parents or walking," Nienhuis said.

A deputy was also on hand this week to direct snarled traffic on residential streets leading into J.D. Floyd K8 in Spring Hill. The pick-up process took nearly an hour on Monday, said principal Ray Pinder, but that has since been cut nearly in half. The school is adjusting traffic patterns on campus with hopes of cutting that time even more, Pinder said.

The district made some concessions in dangerous situations caused by construction or a lack of sidewalks by creating bus stops within the 2-mile mark for Westside, Pine Grove and Moton elementary schools.

Another stop has since been added for Eastside Elementary students in the Rolling Acres neighborhood on State Road 50 so they don't have to cross the divided highway, said transportation director Linda Smith.

In other cases, parents can request a hardship exemption to allow their children to use an existing stop outside of the 2-mile mark. As of Friday, 63 requests had been granted and 40 denied, with another 41 pending until parents documentation of a medical condition.

Some students who live within 2 miles are gaming the system by boarding buses that get them close to home, causing overcrowding, Smith said.

"We will be identifying them and we will be contacting their parents," she said.

Parents are connecting to carpool, walk to school together, or arrange for older students to walk with younger children.

"We are a neighborhood school, and people are looking out for each other," Stratton said. "It's a nice thing to see on campus."

Principals say more families are taking advantage of pre-school and after-school programs run by the Boys and Girls Club of Hernando County and the Hernando County Family YMCA. The former provides before- and after-school programs for eight schools, including Westside, Brooksville and Deltona elementary schools and Winding Waters K-8. The Y offers before- and after-school programs in nearly all of the district's elementary, middle and K-8 schools.

Not every parent can afford those programs, though.

For Jessica Kirk, a Publix deli clerk with two children at Brooksville Elementary, the cost would be $80 per week. Kirk's husband works from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., so she had to ask her boss to rearrange her work schedule The family has to rely on friends and other family members to pick up the kids a couple of days a week.

"Honestly, it's hard," Kirk said. "It's complicated to juggle everything around."

Other parents are in tenuous situations that make them nervous.

Lisa Mendez of Spring Hill has three children at Explorer. The day care director said the family lives too far for them to walk, and she doesn't want to rely on other parents in a carpool. For now, Mendez takes the children to school and her husband, who currently works the night shift, picks them up.

"If his schedule changes, we're SOL," she said. "The School Board has created havoc in a lot of people's lives."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Courtesy bus cuts test Hernando County students, parents first week of school 08/26/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 26, 2011 8:14pm]
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