LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County's school bus route specialists hit the road Wednesday to re-evaluate the walking conditions leading to 27 campuses.
They aimed to determine whether it's safe enough to stop giving "courtesy" bus passes to the 2,205 students who received them during 2007-08. Of those, 1,672 students actually used the passes.
"Why are courtesy rides even a concern? It's essentially a target when you have a budget crisis," said assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, who oversees the transportation department. "You're technically giving bus rides to people who you really don't have to."
The state pays to bus students who live more than 2 miles from school. It also covers the cost for elementary students who live closer but would have to walk along "hazardous" routes, as defined in statute.
Hazardous conditions take into consideration the availability of sidewalks, the speed limit on the roadways, traffic density and other related factors.
A district might otherwise decide to provide bus rides to students. But it is on the hook for the cost, which in Pasco is about $10,000 per route.
Pasco historically has been among the school districts offering the lowest percentage of free bus rides to students who aren't eligible for state reimbursement. It also consistently rates among the districts with the highest bus occupancy rates.
Still, with revenue shrinking and costs rising for fuel, food, insurance, utilities and more, the School Board is looking at all areas — including transportation — to cut spending by close to $20-million.
"It's the public's money," board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said. "We need to make sure we're spending it wisely."
A closer look at whether the courtesy rides are justifiable makes sense in this regard, she said. And the best way is to consider each on a case-by-case basis, using consistent guidelines.
For instance, the district provides busing to students who would have to cross six-lane Ridge Road to get to the Chasco Elementary/Middle campus in New Port Richey, but it does not offer the same to children who must cross six-lane Little Road to walk to either Deer Park or Schrader elementary schools.
"You can imagine the quagmire you're in there, because you've created exceptions," Gadd said.
Some of the courtesy rides might not draw intense scrutiny because they don't cost the district much. For instance, the five courtesy riders to Cox Elementary in Dade City get picked up by a bus that's not otherwise full as it passes by their stop.
The schools that have courtesy riders in the hundreds — particularly the middle and high schools, which don't qualify for any hazardous route funding — are the ones that could find these extra riders targeted. For instance, Weightman Middle in Wesley Chapel has three bus routes filled entirely with courtesy riders.
"It's the big numbers that are costing us money," Gadd said.
Transportation supervisor Gary Sawyer said he hoped to have the courtesy route analysis complete, with a recommendation to the superintendent some time next week. He stressed that safety will remain the top priority.
"If we didn't care about that, we would have kids crossing U.S. 19 now," Sawyer said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.