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Oldsmar pays $36,000 a year to keep school bus routes

When the school district dropped bus service from 18 routes to two due to budget cuts, the Oldsmar City Council stepped up.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

When the school district dropped bus service from 18 routes to two due to budget cuts, the Oldsmar City Council stepped up.

OLDSMAR — For three years, Denise Szima has relied on the Pinellas County School District to transport her grandchildren from their Eastlake Oaks subdivision to Oldsmar Elementary.

"If we didn't have a bus," she said, "I would not know how to get these kids to school."

There's something else that Szima and a number of other parents don't know: The reason their children have enjoyed service the past two school years is because the city — not the district — has paid for it.

Although the $36,000-a-year arrangement may sound unusual and the mayor and parents believe Pinellas schools should foot the bill, it's not the district's responsibility to bus students.

Oldsmar and other municipalities across the county have gotten free rides for years even though they did not qualify for service.

Florida law requires busing if students live more than 2 miles from schools. Szima's grandchildren are among 128 elementary-age students who live within 2 miles of Oldsmar Elementary — and should be walking.

In financially robust times, Pinellas would have bused them and others who are technically ineligible for service.

"We did it as a courtesy," said T. Mark Hagewood, the district's transportation manager.

With budget cuts, it can no longer afford to be so accommodating. The district began phasing out the courtesy stops last school year. That didn't sit well with officials in this city of about 14,000. Before the end of the county's choice program, 18 school buses came in and out of Oldsmar. After that program ended, the number plummeted to just two.

Rather than have their children navigate busy Tampa Road, Forest Lakes Boulevard and State Road 580 on foot, the City Council voted in July to pay for two additional bus routes.

It was that, Mayor Jim Ronecker said, or pay the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office $40,000 a year for crossing guards. Municipalities — not school districts — must pay for them, too. Clearwater and several others do, Hagewood said.

Oldsmar is the only municipality in the county to contract with the district for bus service, he said. Buses usually seat 65 people and cost $18,000 per year.

"The most important thing for us is safety," Ronecker said. "Especially kids who are 5 to 11 years old."

By the district's standards, the path to Oldsmar Elementary is safe. The speed limit is under 55. The students have a sidewalk. And the number of cars on the road per hour is, according to state guidelines, acceptable.

Try telling that to parent DeeDee Bland, whose 10-year-old daughter catches the bus at the Abbey at Forest Lakes apartment complex.

"I'm sort of pissed off right now," she said Monday morning upon learning that the city pays for buses and not the district. "To see little kids walking across (State Road) 580. They're too little to do that. A bus is what they need and should have.

"I commend the city of Oldsmar for stepping up and paying fees for the bus, but the Pinellas County School Board needs to look at this intersection and how many cars pass daily. … You want kids to cross this road? That's dangerous."

Ronecker said he has invited the School Board to walk the route with him and other city officials for the past two years. While no one from the School Board has come out, the district has sent representatives from its transportation team.

Ronecker hopes his city's unusual arrangement will persuade Pinellas school officials to have a change of heart and eventually fund the bus service.

"The School Board is legally doing what they're allowed to do by the definition of the state statute," Ronecker said. "But anybody with any common sense knows you'd have to be an idiot to think that was a safe route."

Hagewood wouldn't make any promises, but he said the district will evaluate routes in February and determine whether a change is necessary.

"The traffic counts have to be a lot different," he said. "That's how we base part of the hazard."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Oldsmar pays $36,000 a year to keep school bus routes 10/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 9:31pm]

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