OLDSMAR — A recent Pinellas County School Board decision to discontinue bus service to some children within 2 miles of Oldsmar Elementary School has city officials and parents in a panic.
"Public safety is our number one concern," said Mayor Jim Ronecker. "And if we can't protect our school kids, then we've got some serious issues."
The issue: Oldsmar Elementary students living north of State Road 580 had gotten bus service — even though they are within the 2-mile zone where children normally are required to walk. The School Board made an exception because Forest Lakes Boulevard had been considered hazardous.
But now the road has sidewalks, so it's considered safe enough for walking, according to school transportation officials. Bus service will be discontinued for all children within 2 miles of Oldsmar Elementary.
A similar decision was made for students at Sutherland Elementary School in Palm Harbor. New sidewalks on Belcher Road will mean 75 students there will have to walk to school too.
In Oldsmar, 42 students from kindergarten through fifth grade will walk past busy fast-food businesses on Tampa Road, south on Forest Lakes Boulevard's sidewalks, then cross Forest Lakes Boulevard at the State Road 580 traffic light.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office recorded 210 citations at the light in April, many for drivers who ran the red light, according to city officials.
"I have a 5-year-old and I can't imagine having her cross there," said council member Eric Seidel. "I wouldn't allow it — it's a zoo there."
In a letter to Michael Burke, the School Board's route and safety auditor, Oldsmar Elementary School family and community liaison Cathleen Schmitt cited numerous reasons why it's tough to be a driver at that intersection, much less a pedestrian. Among them:
• A right turn lane that cars move through continuously.
•Heavy morning traffic meeting on two major roads.
•A speed limit of 50 miles per hour, and cars that travel 65 mph or faster.
•Railroad tracks north of the intersection that create congestion.
"I am deeply concerned that there will be an accident and a child will be injured or killed," wrote Schmitt, who is the mother of an Oldsmar Elementary student.
But the students won't be crossing alone. Two new crossing guards will help them across Forest Lakes. Two additional new crossing guards will escort them across State Road 580 at the Bayview Boulevard light.
The mayor said the crossing guards will help, but they can't prevent careless driving.
"If somebody's looking down at their cell phone in the morning," Ronecker said, "there's going to be a whole batch of kids hit, including the crossing guards."
He wouldn't allow his fifth-grader to cross there, he said, nor would he himself attempt to cross there — at age 43.
"It's just not good common sense," he said.
The School Board has referred the issue to a committee charged with improving the safety of the route. And the Florida Department of Transportation will evaluate State Road 580 and consider improvements, such as possibly lowering the speed limit.
Jennifer Lash of Oldsmar doesn't understand why buses that already go down Forest Lakes Boulevard can't stop for her 9-year-old daughter. She said she tried to voice her concerns to the School Board but was told she was "too early to complain."
In a May 6 e-mail to Schmitt, School Board official Burke said the decision had been reviewed by the School Board's transportation safety team and transportation management.
At this point, he suggested that students "need to be trained/instructed on the route to school and how to walk safely to school."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.