With the new school year just around the corner, Pinellas parents are starting to feel the pinch of the district's dire financial situation: Some bus stops are farther from home than they were last year.
The district's transportation call center has logged about 1,500 complaints since it began sending out postcards with bus assignments last week. Many of them appear to be from parents of middle and high school students who attend countywide programs, said district transportation director Rick McBride.
Those students traditionally have had limited bus service.
Complaints also come from parents of high school students who chose not to move children to their zoned schools. Last winter, the district decided to provide them limited transportation in an effort to shave $11 million from a busing budget that had swelled to nearly $50 million.
The result: Those students now ride buses restricted to main roads with a limited number of stops that can be farther than 11/2 miles from their homes.
"Some of those parents apparently didn't understand the impact," McBride said. "But we put it out on our Web site back in March. We said, 'Here are the arterial stops.' "
Theresa Schmitt said she knew the district had made cuts to save money on busing, but she didn't know it would affect her son Ryan until she got his bus assignment in the mail.
Last year, the 15-year-old Northeast High student caught the school bus 3 blocks from home. This year, he'll have to walk twice as far.
"I automatically assumed it was a mistake," Schmitt said.
She left a message with the call center on Friday and was still waiting for a response Monday.
"I fully believe (the district) should sit down right now and figure out how they can re-divvy up these stops," Schmitt said.
Easier said than done, McBride said.
To save the kind of money that budget cuts demanded, his department had to reduce 700 routes to 500 and eliminate nearly 10,000 stops.
Much of the savings were realized with the closure of six elementary schools and the merger of four middle schools. Also, the School Board voted to provide regular bus service only to students who were willing to attend their neighborhood schools.
Board member Carol Cook thinks that was the right thing to do. But she's concerned about the number of parents who have said their children must cross busy streets to get to new bus stops.
"There has to be a happy medium," said Cook, who got about 30 complaints. "We have to be efficient, but we have to be safe."
Safety is Beth Lindenberg's concern.
Lindenberg, a parent of a seventh-grader at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, said her son's stop was in the family's neighborhood last year. The new stop is three blocks farther, at "a seedy intersection."
"It's dark and creepy there," Lindenberg said. "Did they check with St. Pete police to see if this is safe for the kids?"
McBride, who said the district logged a similar number of calls last year, promised his staff will investigate all complaints and do what it can for students with limited bus service.
No new stops for regular bus service will be created until Sept. 15.
In the meantime, parents like Lindenberg, whose children attend countywide programs, are perhaps lucky to have transportation. According to state statute, McBride said, districts are not required to transport those students at all.
Donna Winchester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8413. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.