TAMPA — Hillsborough school officials expected to hear from unhappy parents this fall.
Never mind the 16 community meetings the district held on the bus route changes affecting half the county, or the 120,000 letters in English and Spanish mailed to homes at the end of last school year. The truth was bound to hit home when it actually happened.
The burden of transporting students is being shifted to parents.
"This is going to sound very hard-hearted, but it really comes down to what we can afford to do," said board member Candy Olson, citing the shortage of drivers and pinched budgets for school transportation. "Parents have a right to be concerned about their kids, but this has to be a shared responsibility."
In northwest Hillsborough, one of three areas where bus routes were overhauled this year, the district has eliminated 1,300 bus stops, or 57 percent of those on the books. School officials have not yet tallied the figures in other regions, but they acknowledge that about 6,000 students eligible for transportation last year no longer qualify for a bus ride.
That means children are walking farther to bus stops. Courtesy busing is a thing of the past. The rules are stricter to get a ride to magnet and choice programs. Children with disabilities increasingly are riding the same buses as traditional students.
All these changes would have been hard to swallow even if the district not experienced a communications breakdown that prompted a personal apology from the school superintendent. Thousands of parents flooded a transportation hotline unequipped to handle the call volume. Scores failed to receive a letter detailing their children's bus route information before school started.
Once they finally got details, many parents were perplexed by changes that seemed to make little sense, and unable to reach anyone to address the concerns.
"It just appears that whoever thought up this system was not cognizant of the needs of the people it was serving," said Mitchel Seleznick, the father of a student who lives in the Dana Shores area and attends Robinson High's International Baccalaureate magnet in South Tampa.
For the past two years, a bus has picked his son up near home. This year, the stop was moved to a transportation hub at Leto High School, which is 11 miles from their neighborhood. Robinson High is almost the same distance in the opposite direction.
Seleznick can understand budget limitations. But the logic here defies him. After days of waiting on hold and leaving messages, he thought he had fixed the problem, only to find himself back at square one when a bus didn't show up as expected. He is now talking to other school officials about his dissatisfaction.
Many parents have similar frustrations.
With the late notification, parents had little time to adjust to new anxieties as children walk farther to catch the bus. As a child, Cynthia Keenan walked 1.9 miles to school, balancing her school books with her cheerleader pompoms.
But the Westchase mother can't help worrying about her daughter's mile walk to a bus stop. Last year, it was close enough for Keenan to look down the street from her house and see that the bus arrived. The change has affected her peace of mind.
As a parent who trusted the system, she feels burned by the last-minute frenzy. "Even being behind a gated community, there's no way I would let my daughter walk a mile entirely on her own," she said.
Parents whose children have disabilities were surprised, too, by this year's move to greater mainstreaming. Children accustomed to riding on separate buses for children with disabilities are increasingly mixed with traditional students.
Gina Hammons is hearing horror stories from friends about their children being teased, and drivers not attuned to their special needs. She knows five people having problems, including a driver who simply refused to pick up a special needs child at the stop.
"They're calling it mainstreaming. I don't think it is," she said. "They're just trying to save money. Throwing everybody on the same bus and not preparing the drivers, not preparing the parents."
At Maniscalco Elementary, parents are protesting elimination of busing to the after-school program at Nye Park. About 60 children were affected.
School officials met with parents last week. The community remains puzzled by the reasoning behind the decision. The district is offering to continue busing the students for the next month, giving everyone more time to work on a solution.
The lack of notice rankles, as does the timing. And the district isn't alone in feeling a financial pinch.
"I spent $120, probably more than that, on school supplies for these kids," said Mary Ann Cappadoro, a single working mother. "The government is chipping away at their budget, and it's falling right back the parents to provide more and more and more."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.