Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

Dunedin will debate whether to pick up tab for busing of 53 elementary pupils

DUNEDIN — Why will the San Jose Elementary student walk across the busy five-lane state road?

Because that will be the only way to get to the other side — that is, after the Pinellas County School Board discontinued busing for about 50 students the school district determined had mistakenly received bus transportation.

It turns out the students live within two miles of the school, and that means they don't qualify for busing. Busing will be discontinued next school year.

But, unamused by the real-life punch line, Dunedin city leaders tonight will start discussing the pros, cons and budget impact of alternatives, such as fronting the cost for buses, a crosswalk or crossing guards to monitor students traversing State Road 580 near the entrance to downtown.

Still, the city fears those measures would do little to protect its youngest residents.

"Staff does not support the decision of the PCSB. It will be challenging, even with adult crossing guards, to safely shepherd elementary school children across a multi-lane divided state roadway (even at a signalized intersection)," City Manager Rob DiSpirito wrote in a memo to city commissioners.

"A PCSB transportation model which ignores the inherent dangers of elementary school children crossing S.R. 580," DiSpirito wrote, "is flawed."

The school district's decision is in line with the Florida Administrative Code, which states that only students who live more than two miles from their zoned school are eligible for busing, Pinellas schools route and safety auditor Mike Burke wrote in a Dec. 11 letter to affected parents.

The letter stated that a recent review of district software revealed an inaccuracy in the two-mile walk zone map for San Jose Elementary, 1670 San Helen Drive.

When the software was installed, Burke wrote, walking distances were calculated from the parent pick-up/drop-off loop at San Mateo and San Jose drives rather than the pedestrian access/bus loop/visitor parking area at San Salvador and San Helen drives. District officials double-checked their findings by walking the route and measuring with a wheel.

The change affects 53 students living in a 1-square-mile area of the school zone's southeastern corner, located south of State Road 580 and north of Beltrees Street and west of Patricia Avenue.

The school district doesn't supply crossing guards, leaving the city to consider tonight, among other possible solutions, whether to:

• Pay for two 65-passenger school buses at a cost of $28,000 each. That would provide enough capacity to extend busing options beyond the previously eligible children to all 104 students living south of State Road 580.

• Seek Florida Department of Transportation approval to install a $10,000 crosswalk on State Road 580 at the Skinner/Main/Bass intersection. FDOT officials are compiling a crash history for that location, city documents show.

• Foot the $24,600 bill for posting one guard at the four-way stop at Milwaukee Avenue and Virginia Street, and one or two guards at the Skinner Boulevard/Main Street/Bass Boulevard intersection.

Dunedin, which contracts with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, has typically paid the agency to provide school crossing guards as needed. That includes five who are already stationed near San Jose Elementary in mornings and afternoons. But the school system's decision, city staffers say, transfers to Dunedin thousands of dollars in expenses — funds that are neither available nor budgeted.

Pinellas schools Associate Superintendent Michael Bessette said in a statement Wednesday that transportation department staff would work with Dunedin to best determine how to deal with the situation: "As always, the safety of students is the district's primary concern."

Dunedin's dilemma is reminiscent of Oldsmar's, where the school district last year announced plans to gradually hike costs the city paid for busing over the course of three years. Instead of having to eventually pay an extra $23,000 to bus Oldsmar Elementary students across busy State Road 580 at Forest Lakes Boulevard, the City Council voted to decrease the intersection's speed limit and spend more than $24,500 on crossing guards and signs.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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