DUNEDIN — Ridiculous. Goofy. Government bureaucracy at its worst.
Those were a few terms incensed city commissioners used Thursday night to describe their displeasure with a bus transportation mixup that could force dozens of San Jose Elementary students to cross a busy five-lane road during their daily walk to school.
Busing will be discontinued next school year for about 50 students the school district determined had mistakenly received bus transportation. It turns out the students live within 2 miles of the school, and that means they don't qualify for busing.
Commissioners said they will draft a resolution that they hope will persuade the Pinellas County School Board to reconsider the rules, which they said ignore that children as young as 5 might now have to battle rush-hour traffic on State Road 580 near the entrance to downtown.
They said they also would call School Board members, contact legislators or attend a School Board meeting, if needed, to personally appeal to leaders to use common sense.
"That's what the state tells us, that it's not safe enough for an adult to cross in a golf cart at a signaled light, but yet an elementary school-age child can do it?" an incredulous Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski asked.
Added Commissioner Julie Scales: "At a time when there's a really heightened concern about the safety of schoolchildren … it's one of the more bureaucratic sillinesses I've seen in a long time."
The comments came during a PowerPoint presentation Thursday by Mike Burke, the route and safety auditor for Pinellas schools.
Burke said the error on the district's 2-mile walk zone map was discovered after a disbelieving parent requested verification that the child lived too close to qualify for busing.
Upon review, officials realized their 30-year-old software had used the incorrect school entrance when calculating walking distances for about 50 children living in a 1-square-mile area of the school zone's southeastern corner, south of SR 580, north of Beltrees Street and west of Patricia Avenue. The students, Burke said, actually live about 1.7 miles from San Jose Elementary.
State rules allow the district to make busing exceptions if students must cross a hazardous road, Burke said, but he added that SR 580 doesn't meet that designation, based on a Florida Department of Transportation evaluation of rush-hour traffic.
That explanation didn't sit well with commissioners, who must now ponder whether to pick up the tab for thousands of dollars in safety measures such as a crosswalk, crossing guards or buses.
Burke said Commissioner Ron Barnette's suggestion that students living south of SR 580 be bused to a dropoff point just north of the busy road wouldn't work because of safety reasons: "When we pick up kids, we make a contract with parents that we'll … drop them off at school."
City Manager Rob DiSpirito said it appears to be a "human interpretation" issue, in that the software doesn't consider multilane road crossings in its calculations and that district officials aren't given much latitude in overriding the decades-old software criteria.
Bujalski asked why officials couldn't simply ignore a mistake they made at least 10 years ago.
"We as a city have to go out and spend $25,000 to $30,000 because of a one- to two-block computer error?" she asked. "You're choosing to make your math read that they're going to go into a different entrance of the school. You're not saying the school is any closer or further. … Do you see how crazy that is?"
Burke replied that he has to follow the law: "When we realize we've made a mistake, we are required to correct it. Otherwise it's fraud."
Furthermore, he said, making an exception for a few San Jose students might lead to requests for similar treatment across the county, which is full of multilane roads.
"If we start saying a student that resided within a 2-mile zone couldn't cross a multilane road," Burke said, "we would have 80,000 or 90,000 students on buses instead of 35,000."
Mayor Dave Eggers said the problem appears to lie mainly in the school district's rigid busing guidelines and the way officials lay out school boundaries, which Burke said tend to stretch for miles north and south to encompass enough children to fill schools.
Several commissioners were frustrated that the disqualified students live within blocks of Dunedin Elementary yet are zoned for San Jose Elementary nearly 2 miles north. Because of the large number of Pinellas elementary schools, most fall within a 2-mile walk zone, Burke said.
"Because of the way you all have designed it," Eggers said, "you almost box yourselves and us into a corner. We really don't have a choice but to incur a cost that traditionally would be the schools' cost."
Burke said the district offers day care before and after school to accommodate working parents who provide transportation for their children. The open enrollment application period is also under way for parents who want their children to be considered next school year for a school that is either closer to their home or offers busing.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.