BROOKSVILLE — The decision had been made weeks prior, but parents still pleaded.
As her three children fidgeted in the audience, Summer Bailey stood at a lectern Tuesday and implored the Hernando School Board to reconsider how the decision to eliminate bus service for children who live within 2 miles of school would affect families like hers.
The single mother is a server at Ruby Tuesday, and two of her kids are bused from a nearby day care center to Explorer K-8 School in the morning and then back again in the afternoon. That service is now gone.
"If I have to go pick them up every day, I can't put a roof over my head," Bailey said.
Faced with a multimillion-dollar budget gap, a reluctant School Board voted 3 to 1 last month to cut the service to save about $800,000. More than 2,400 students took advantage of the so-called courtesy busing last year. The district made recorded phone calls to affected homes last week and is sending more than 3,000 postcards to notify families of the change.
Now, with just a week remaining before the 2011-12 school year begins, the pleading has turned to scrambling as parents figure out how to get their kids to and from school safely.
Some parents say they live too far away from school to expect their children to make the journey alone. They worry about dogs and sex offenders.
"We're all, for all intents and purposes, freaking out because we don't know what we're going to do come Aug. 22," parent Romina Larson told the board.
School officials have no way of knowing how many of the former courtesy bus riders will now be walking or riding bicycles to school, said transportation director Linda Smith. Many parents who are able to drive their children to school have certainly already decided to do so, Smith said.
There is a countywide effort under way to help the rest. One of the best solutions, school officials said, is carpooling.
"Yes, this is a convenience that is being taken away, but parents and schools need to band together to ensure that students get to school safely and on time," said Westside Elementary principal Nancy Kesselring.
Westside was among the neighborhood schools most affected by the change, losing seven of its nine buses.
Kesselring and other principals said they will be helping connect parents who want to arrange carpools. Schools have precious few staffers to dedicate people to that task, but there are other ways to assist, said John Stratton, principal at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill, which is losing 10 buses.
One way the school can help is to mount a ride board in the front office where parents can leave contact information, Stratton said.
"I want (parents) to take control, but we can be the hub or the access point," he said.
Principals also urged parents to attend their school's open house. Nearly all of the district's schools will have open houses this week, and many will have information available about transportation options.
For families whose children will make their way to and from school on foot or on bikes, school officials are encouraging parents to form "walking school buses," where groups of students from the same neighborhood meet to travel to school together. Again, schools will help make those connections, principals said.
The district, with help from the Hernando Sheriff's Office, is putting crossing guards at 14 of the county's busiest intersections, Smith said. School officials are also asking the county to help with infrastructure improvements, such as flashing lights.
At least two community groups are making crucial contributions, superintendent Bryan Blavatt told the School Board last week.
The Boys & Girls Club of Hernando County provides before- and afterschool programs for eight schools, including Westside, Brooksville and Deltona elementary schools and Winding Waters K-8.
The club will put to good use a school bus the district donated last year, said executive director Josh Kelly. The bus will pick up students at Deltona in the afternoon and take them to the club's main office on the Westside Elementary campus on Applegate Drive. The club might add morning bus service to Deltona, too, depending on demand, Kelly said.
In the afternoon, the club will bus Brooksville Elementary students to a few stops, including Da-Mac Estates and the Hillside Estates public housing complex. Both neighborhoods are near the edge of the 2-mile mark.
"That's huge," said Brooksville Elementary principal Mary LeDoux.
The club will poll parents at each site to find out if there is a need to open earlier and close later, Kelly said.
"We are going to be looking at ways to do that to accommodate families who need the extra time to get from their jobs," he said.
The Hernando County Family YMCA is taking a similar approach, said Tammy Brinker, executive director of the Y's school-age program. The Y offers before- and after-school programs in nearly all of the district's elementary, middle and K-8 schools. Suncoast Elementary has already requested extended hours now that courtesy busing is gone, Brinker said.
"We're doing everything we can to help meet the needs of the community and the families and the schools," Brinker said.
Some of the most vocal parents are those like Bailey, who leave their children at day care centers and preschools that were stops on courtesy bus routes. Some centers are now making their own arrangements to fill in the gap.
Scribbles Preschool on Mariner Boulevard, for example, has hired a local company to bus students to five schools, said Melissa Sanderson, a teacher at the preschool. Scribbles is sharing the cost with parents, Sanderson said.
Principals are getting creative, too.
LeDoux has arranged for ROTC students at neighboring Hernando High to meet students coming from Hillside Estates and nearby apartment complexes each morning at the corner of Jefferson and Broad streets. That intersection is getting a crossing guard, and the high school students will walk with the children the rest of the way to Brooksville Elementary.
"I get the fact that parents are worried, but there's no money," LeDoux said. "We've got to be creative and work together to get these kids to school safely."
The district is accepting requests for hardship exemptions from parents who still want bus service. Instead of providing service within the 2-mile zone, though, students who are exempted would be allowed to catch the bus at the closest stop outside of the zone.
Smith said other districts that don't have courtesy busing offer a similar service. So far, she has received about 150 requests via the online application form on the district website's home page. Forms are also available at each school.
Residents in Spring Ridge, a relatively new development that feeds into Central High, West Hernando Middle and Pine Grove Elementary schools, are eligible for the exemption because of construction on Sunshine Grove Road. But that means traveling to bus stops that are farther than the schools themselves.
Spring Ridge filled up an entire bus, and families are still hopeful that the district will make some concession for the neighborhood, said parent and community clubhouse manager Sandra Manuele.
In the meantime, parents in the neighborhood are starting to talk carpools.
"I guess that's what their last resort would be," Manuele said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.