BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County School Board members decided Tuesday not to second-guess their chief executive's decision to cut bus service to private day care centers.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt acted within his purview when he directed staffers earlier this year to inform more than a dozen centers that the service would stop after Jan. 1, a majority of board members agreed. The main motivators, Blavatt has said, were to stop subsidizing private businesses and to cut some bus routes to save money. Day cares, he argued, should provide their own transportation.
Board member John Sweeney said Blavatt made the right call. The board made the difficult decision earlier this year to save money for classrooms by cutting bus service for students who live within 2 miles of their schools, Sweeney said."I see this as even further removed from that," he said. "I think a semester was plenty of time to give a heads-up."
Blavatt agreed last month to put the item on a workshop agenda after School Board members started getting calls from angry day care owners. He reiterated Tuesday that there is not an existing School Board policy addressing day care bus service, meaning he as superintendent could make a procedural call.
"If the board feels differently, I'm more than willing to listen and take any suggestions," he said.
Board member Matt Foreman asked if there was a compelling reason to provide the service.
"We need to make a decision to put a policy in place or to let Mr. Blavatt do his job," Foreman said. "He's the CEO."
Though no board member said Blavatt acted beyond the scope of his authority, at least two were uncomfortable with the move.
Member Dianne Bonfield worried about the impact on working parents who could feel the ripple effect if day care centers cannot provide their own transportation.
"I understand the business aspect, but I understand, too, that these institutions are there for the health, safety and welfare of our students and to help the working community," Bonfield said. "Now we're saying we're going to cut you off and we don't care to work with you anymore."
Noting that some day cares are close to other existing bus stops, Bonfield wondered how providing the service is a burden to the district.
The district currently provides bus service to about 195 students at 16 day cares, transportation director Linda Smith told the board. Cutting the service would allow Smith to eliminate two routes, saving $94,000 a year.
There are 17 day care centers in the county that do not have the luxury of a bus stop, Smith said.
"So we're being a little inconsistent in that way," she said.
Also, some parents who live within the 2-mile radius of schools are using day cares to garner bus service, Smith said.
That's a concern, interim counsel Dennis Alfonso told the board.
"You don't want to create a circumstance where you can circumvent board policy and board rules," Alfonso said.
Member James Yant worried that the district had failed to give parents enough notice.
"My concern is disrupting parents during the middle of the year," he said. "People need an opportunity to respond to this."
The district started making calls to day care centers in late September and early October, notifying them of the change, Smith said.
Shane Harris, one of two day care center owners who attended Tuesday's workshop, told the Times after the meeting that he knows several center owners or managers who contend they didn't get a phone call. Harris, owner and director of the Learning Tree in Ridge Manor, said he is confident the district will have to add bus stops for students who had been dropped off at day care centers, wiping out any projected savings.
During the public comment portion of Tuesday night's School Board meeting, he planned to urge the board to keep the service intact and hold another workshop.
"Then when all the facts are available for the board members to make an informed decision, let them decide," he said.
In the meantime, some center owners are scrambling to find a way to provide their own transportation. In some cases, that might not be possible, which could put a big dent in business.
Erin Begeny, owner of Scribbles Preschool in Spring Hill, said her center has had a bus stop for 15 years. Thirty of her school-age charges now benefit from the service, giving parents peace of mind because an adult is waiting for the bus each day, she said.
Those parents might soon be out of luck.
"Having a van," Begeny said, "is a huge liability for us."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.