LAND O'LAKES — Driver education is back on the front burner for some Pasco County School District leaders as they examine the budget for the coming school year.
They want to increase the program, if possible.
"We are exploring every option to enhance the level of driver training, to provide a safer driving experience for our students," said School Board member Allen Altman, who is pressing for changes. "I did not want to reduce those programs. I have challenged (the administration) to see what we could do ... to offer this to our students without costing the district any more money."
That request could prove a tall order, as the district continues to look for ways to cut spending in the face of a revenue crunch.
"The budget is so debilitating, it's difficult to invest too much in one solution or the other," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said. "We are looking at long-term solutions."
Driver education took a hit two years ago when the board decided to scale back the credit-bearing elective course as a cost-cutting measure. Many students began taking the course online, with behind-the-wheel training reduced or eliminated as the instructors left schools.
The program shrank at Wesley Chapel, Pasco and Ridgewood high schools after retirements, for instance. Land O'Lakes High is next on the list to see it go, again because of a retirement.
But reports of student driving accidents continue, bothering board members who already have their doubts about the value of a computerized driving course.
"I put it in the same category as online P.E.," board vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. "Hands-on driving is a better method."
She supported the idea of bolstering the School District program, perhaps with more fee-based offerings.
Curriculum supervisor Sean Brock has been analyzing the options.
"There are a couple of different things you can do," Brock said. "We're just kind of looking at it to see what it would look like if we did something different."
The possibilities include:
• Expanding adult education driving courses, which cost $175 for six weeks. These are offered at Sunlake and Zephyrhills high schools. Each additional instructor would cost $750 per semester.
• Create behind-the-wheel components to the Pasco eSchool driver education course. This could cost $150,000 if new teachers are hired.
• Partner with Florida Traffic Safety Council and Florida Virtual School to offer after-school and weekend behind-the-wheel instruction to students who have successfully completed the online course. The cost of $285 per student would be covered primarily by a driver education portion of traffic penalty fines collected in Pasco County.
Brock has all but ruled out recommending expanding the school-based elective back to its past form — at least for now — because of the associated personnel and equipment expenses.
Altman called this issue one of his priorities and said he hoped to see the program expanded in time for the new school year if the budget allows. He said it would help families with their insurance costs, while also keeping the streets safer.
"It is a need," Larson added. "We want our kids safe."
The administration plans to keep studying the issue and to report back to the board if it finds a viable proposal.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.