A last-minute, well-meaning compromise to save busing in the face of budget cuts has created a house divided at one of Pinellas County's fundamental schools.
Staring down a $60 million budget deficit, superintendent Julie Janssen initially proposed cutting busing to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole, for a savings of $1.8 million. But after some board members objected, she offered a tradeoff.
The buses can keep rolling for another year, she said, but only if Thurgood changes its schedule. The shift from a 7:20 to 9:30 a.m. starting time would allow the district to save money by rearranging its overall bus schedule.
"That is the only way we can continue to do it," Janssen told School Board members last week.
Some Thurgood parents are livid. Some are relieved.
Sparing a hardship for some parents, the former say, has created a hardship for others. "Logistically, this can't happen for us," said Michel Sill, whose son is slated to attend Thurgood in the fall.
Sill, who works in Tampa, said she painstakingly arranged her part-time work schedule to be in sync with her children's time in school. She said she would have picked Madeira Beach Fundamental Middle School had she known Thurgood's schedule would be changing. She said she cannot afford before- or after-school care.
"I don't know everybody's situation, whether it's economics, whether it's convenience," she said. "For me, it's economic."
Sill said she doesn't know what she will do if the School Board approves the change next week.
Karin Toon said she doesn't know what she will do if the buses get cut.
"My husband and I definitely rely on the bus," said Toon, whose son is a seventh-grader at Thurgood Marshall.
She said she and her husband have work schedules that don't mesh with the existing or proposed bell times. She said she has talked to other Thurgood Marshall parents about carpooling, but they're working parents in the same boat.
"If they kept the bus at the same start time, that would be great," she said. "But I have to take what I can get."
Janssen offered the tradeoff after some board members raised concerns about the impact to low-income students.
Forty percent of Thurgood Marshall's students were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch last year, a higher rate than Pinellas' two other fundamental middle schools, Clearwater (18 percent) and Madeira Beach (25 percent). Nearly half of Thurgood's 930 students — 442 — ride the bus.
Only two of the district's 10 fundamental schools, Osceola and Thurgood Marshall, offer busing. Thurgood Marshall has been an exception since it opened in 2002 as part of a settlement in a long-running desegregation case.
"We have some families that really need the transportation to participate in a fundamental school," said board member Lew Williams.
It's not clear how many parents would be in a bind if the board eliminated busing, or how many will be in a bind with the proposed start times. Thurgood Marshall's principal, Dallas Jackson, could not be reached for comment.
The district e-mailed surveys to Thurgood parents May 13, but some said they didn't receive one while others found the questions misleading and awkwardly worded.
Janssen also told board members the district will consider ending busing to Thurgood Marshall and Osceola after next spring.
Board members did not raise major objections to her proposal. But the issue will be on the table when they vote on budget cuts Thursday.
Williams said he intends to bring it up — and may argue for the board to leave both the busing and existing bell times in place.
"I have not been convinced that there would be a large, negative impact on the budget by keeping that school intact," he said.
The district says the impact will be about $1.9 million. That's how much will be saved if bus schedules can be rearranged to accommodate a state-mandated longer school day at four high schools under state oversight. If Thurgood Marshall's schedule isn't changed, the district will need 30 more bus routes to handle the transportation dominoes that will fall because of the shifting high school schedules, said associate superintendent Michael Bessette.
Thurgood Marshall's PTSA president Keri Halpain said she knows of several parents who have expressed a willingness to organize a carpool registry if the bus is canceled.
More new bell times?
The district has also proposed new schedules at five elementary schools to keep bus costs from rising. Start times at Azalea, Lakewood, Sawgrass Lake and Shore Acres would go from 8:35 a.m. to 7:35 a.m. The start time at Sanderlin would move from 8:35 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
Jennifer Gonzalez, a single mom who has a seventh-grader at Thurgood Marshall and a fourth-grader at another fundamental, Bay Vista, said she wants the district to keep the busing intact. She said she is not sure how she is going to manage in 2012 if there is no busing when her oldest is at Osceola and her youngest is at Thurgood.
But she also said she and other parents can better adapt if the district makes a plan and sticks with it.
"That's the hardest thing," she said. "Every year, they scramble."
Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.