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Safety reviews to delay Hillsborough school bus list

TAMPA — With new bus routes and fewer bus stops on tap for the coming school year, Hillsborough parents want to know where their children will be waiting.

For many, that information may not come until mid July.

The Hillsborough School District, which scrapped existing maps in some areas, can't produce a finalized bus stop list until then because officials are still trying to work out some kinks. They include complaints from parents that the proposed stops are at major intersections or at accident-prone corners.

"We're going to launch a number of safety reviews based on a number of concerns parents had right off the bat," said John Franklin, the district's transportation general manager.

Over the past two weeks, Franklin has met with hundreds of families in a series of meetings at area high schools, giving parents an opportunity to see their children's proposed stops.

Some discovered fewer stops in their communities and longer walks for their children — and that's not likely to change, Franklin said. Other issues dealing with safety are more likely to prompt moves. The goal, he said, is to have two to 20 students per bus stop. Some elementary students will have to walk up to a mile and middle and high school students up to 1.5 miles.

The overhaul — which encompasses much of South Tampa, northwest Hillsborough, parts of the central city and the northern suburbs — will affect thousands of students, Franklin said. District officials initially planned to tackle the entire county, but retreated after a pilot program last year in south Hillsborough ran into a number of problems, including long and dangerous walks to bus stops, inconvenient waiting areas and tardy children.

As a result, the project was broken up into phases. This year, the territories affected include Area 1, which encompasses much of South Tampa and parts of the central city; Area 2 schools in northwest Hillsborough; and those in Area 4, spanning North Tampa and its suburbs. The rest of the county should experience similar changes in 2009-10.

Key changes include the creation of a call center — (813) 982-550 — that will handle all bus-related questions; choice hardship (formerly special assignment) students can no longer ride the bus; and service will be halted to for-profit day care centers.

But the big news, for many parents, is that their children will wait for buses farther away from home and, in some cases, on busier streets.

Walker Middle School parent Phyllis Darity, unhappy with what she learned Wednesday night in a meeting at Sickles High School, is banding with other parents to push for changes in the routes.

"I want to know how (school district leaders) came to their decisions and why," said Darity. "There are so many dangers out there, like sexual predators, and they expect our children to walk through all that? They're treating our kids like cans of corn."

Franklin said the transportation reforms are an attempt to use the buses more efficiently, overcome a chronic shortage of drivers and save money during tight economic times. He did not know what the cost savings will be.

Some parents at the Sickles meeting complained that there was not enough advance publicity of the sessions.

Franklin said district officials printed out 120,000 letters for principals to distribute, sent out an e-mail alert to all school district employees and programmed an automated telephone message to households.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Safety reviews to delay Hillsborough school bus list 05/31/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 6, 2008 4:54pm]
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