BROOKSVILLE — For years, Hernando County school buses have picked up and dropped off students at day care facilities.
That tradition will soon end unless the School Board directs superintendent Bryan Blavatt to reverse his decision to cut the service.
The school district's transportation department, at Blavatt's direction, has notified about 14 day care centers and preschools that bus service will stop after the winter break. The first day back is Jan. 9.
Transportation director Linda Smith made the recommendation earlier this year. The move, Smith said, would reduce the number of students on buses and allow her department to eliminate some routes and modify others to save money.
Smith is still calculating the savings, but noted that some routes are comprised almost entirely of day care stops. Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics in Spring Hill, for example, has a bus that stops at five centers.
That's the primary reason for the decision, Blavatt said: The district is bearing an additional expense to subsidize businesses that should be furnishing their own transportation.
"Our providing transportation for them is a service that's using our taxpayers' money to enhance their commercial interests," the superintendent said. "Our primary focus in transportation is to provide a safe means for children to get to and from their homes."
There is no written policy or procedure stating that the district will provide the service, and few other Florida school districts do, Smith said. The tradition was in place when Smith arrived about a decade ago, and in the past she has recommended doing away with it. But previous executives, including superintendent Wendy Tellone, opted to keep the status quo, Smith said.
"Absent a board policy or procedure, I believe it's my decision to make," Blavatt said. "This superintendent is saying we can't afford it anymore."
There also are liability concerns, he said.
"If a child disappears and a parent says, 'Well, I took him to day care,' who's responsible, the day care or us?"
The decision has day care directors grumbling and scrambling to make accommodations. Many were already affected earlier this year by the elimination of bus service for students who live — or attend day care — within 2 miles of school, a move that saved the district about $800,000.
At Mrs. B's Day Care on Spring Hill Drive in Spring Hill, about 28 of the center's 120 children take advantage of transportation to and from Chocachatti and Suncoast elementary schools and J.D. Floyd K-8 School, said director Lisa Mendez. The center will have to use its 14-passenger van to transport those students, a daunting task because the schools have similar start and dismissal times.
"It's going to be rough, but we can't just say to our parents we can't do it," Mendez said. "What are they going to do?"
She wondered why the district has refused to allow day care centers to pick up children at other existing bus stops near day cares.
"It's not the stopping part as much as it is the overcrowding of buses," Smith responded.
Shane Harris, owner and director of the Learning Tree in Ridge Manor, said he can't believe that dropping off students at their homes deep into east-side neighborhoods like Ridge Manor Estates is more efficient and cheaper than dropping them off at his center on Windmere Road.
The buses are heading into those neighborhoods anyway for other students, Smith said.
Some centers don't have their own vans and that will leave parents in a tough spot, Harris said.
Parents and center directors are starting to mobilize to plead their case.
"If they're going to lose their jobs, they're going to put the School Board members out of work," Harris said.
In fact, the School Board never considered the issue. On Tuesday, however, Chairman James Yant asked if any other board members had received calls complaining about the decision. At least one member, Cynthia Moore, said she had. Because the issue was not on the agenda, the board cut the discussion short.
Blavatt said later he will likely put the issue on the board's Dec. 13 agenda. If the board reaches a consensus to keep the day care stops, he will follow that direction, he said.
The item should have been brought to the board in the first place, Yant said.
He said the savings should be significant to justify the upheaval that the decision would cause.
"If we save $10,000," he said, "the question is, is it really worth that?"
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]