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Will kids at Thurgood Middle, Osceola High, Bayside ride PSTA buses?

The equation seems exquisitely simple on the surface:

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has buses that travel across the county, many times with few passengers. The Pinellas County School District has more than 103,000 students, most of whom need transportation.

Stick those kids on county buses, and everybody benefits. The PSTA gets money for the service. The school district can use money it would have spent on buses and gas for other items, such as teachers.

That's the idea behind a pilot program the PSTA and the school district are developing that would see the county bus system provide transportation for students in three district schools: Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole, Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and Bayside High, an alternative school in Largo. In all, 820 students who live across Pinellas would be affected.

If the pilot works, "the sky's the limit," PSTA executive director Tim Garling said. Garling foresees a time in the near future when lots of Pinellas' public school students ride public buses to class.

"I know that it will work," Garling said. "Let's do the pilot, but let's start planning for the future. … It's like the perfect time for me. … I think it's hot stuff."

For the PSTA, that future would include expanded routes that take school locations into account. But school officials are more cautious, saying Garling is jumping the gun.

District officials have been talking for more than a year about the possibility of using public buses for some transportation needs, school superintendent Julie Janssen said. But the district has seen no plans for a pilot and, as far as the district is concerned, the conversation is still at a brainstorming stage.

If the district were to consider a pilot, Janssen said, parents and the School Board would have to be included from the beginning.

"I'd never do something without talking to our parents and the board," she said.

School transportation director Rick McBride said creating a pilot program won't be easy.

"There's a lot to work out," McBride said.

Garling agrees there's a lot to work out — issues of safety, cost, scheduling, just to name a few. But, he said, all those can be handled.

"I actually think all those kinds of issues are manageable," he said.

He agrees that not all kids — especially those in elementary schools — would use public buses. The most likely candidates would be middle schoolers and "certainly" high schoolers.

"I don't think it's going to be possible for the public bus system to provide all school services," Garling said. "I don't think one ever completely eliminates the yellow school bus."

The idea of using PSTA buses for transportation originated with School Board members, who were looking for alternatives to the high costs of busing, McBride said. So district officials approached the PSTA and found an enthusiastic reception.

It was so enthusiastic that the PSTA was ready to begin the pilot this month. But that was moving a bit too fast for the school district. A meeting is scheduled in September to start laying out concerns and seeing what solutions are out there.

That might be when the PSTA plans to bring forward its proposal, Janssen said.

One district school is already using the public bus system for transportation. Clearwater Fundamental Middle School has been doing so for years.

Clearwater principal Dave Rosenberger said using the PSTA was a way to help the school's parents. The district provides no transportation for the fundamental school and many of its students are from the Tarpon Springs area. Those kids' parents had to bring their children to the school and, in many cases, turn around and go back to Tarpon Springs to a job — all this on U.S. 19.

"The parents just were having a terrible time," Rosenberger said.

Then someone noticed a PSTA bus, which was basically empty, stopped near the school about the time classes began and ended. After negotiating with the PSTA and gaining School Board approval, the PSTA moved a stop onto the campus and has a bus on the campus once in the morning and once in the afternoon for 100 to 130 kids. Parents pay traditional PSTA fares or buy reduced-fare PSTA cards.

"It's an incredible service," Rosenberger said. "It's wonderful for us. … It's become so popular, they had to add a second bus. … You'll hear nothing but cheerleading from me. It's just been a godsend."

The key to the success of the program, he said, is the communication among the PSTA, the school and the parents. They discuss what's expected of one another.

The school requires parents and students who use the bus to sign a contract agreeing to certain behaviors. If a child violates the contract, he can be taken off the bus permanently and tossed out of the school.

Because it's a public bus, federal regulations will not allow the vehicle to be closed to regular passengers. But Rosenberger said regular passengers seldom get on the bus with the kids. He said that might have to do with the number of middle schoolers on the bus.

"I suspect 50 middle school students intimidate some people," Rosenberger said.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Will kids at Thurgood Middle, Osceola High, Bayside ride PSTA buses? 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 5:30am]

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