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Oldsmar parents get strong ally in busing fight

OLDSMAR — Sally McKinney knows how it feels to lose a child trying to cross a busy street on the way home from school.

That's why she's speaking out against an idea proposed last week that would require Oldsmar Elementary School students to walk across two major roads.

In October 2004, her daughter, Rebecca, got off a Pinellas County school bus and attempted to cross busy McMullen-Booth Road. But a truck hit the 16-year-old Clearwater High School student and she died two days later.

On Monday, McKinney, 43, said she wants to help Oldsmar Elementary School parents lobby against a Pinellas County School Board decision to discontinue bus service to some children within 2 miles of Oldsmar Elementary School. She volunteered to be their voice before the School Board, which this year agreed to pay her family $1.1-million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from Rebecca's death.

Before the accident, according to their suit, the McKinneys told school administrators their daughter's bus stop was unsafe. After, the school district ousted some officials and made wide-ranging changes to its transportation department.

So McKinney also knows what it's like to take on the School Board.

"Trust me, I'm not afraid of them," said McKinney, who tracks down debtors for a financial company. "They can't take anything away from me that they haven't already."

Oldsmar officials were grateful for McKinney's offer.

"That's huge," said Mayor Jim Ronecker. "We'll take all the help we can get."

Previously, Oldsmar Elementary students living north of State Road 580 have had 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 was considered hazardous.

But now sidewalks have been added, so it's considered safe enough for 42 students from kindergarten through fifth grade to walk, according to school transportation officials.

Those who live farthest from school will walk past busy fast-food businesses on Tampa Road, then turn south onto sidewalks on the western side of Forest Lakes Boulevard and cross a railroad track. A crossing guard will help students across Forest Lakes Road, a busy road that nearly 19,000 cars pass through each day.

Students will continue their walk on the north side of State Road 580, on a sidewalk separated from the road with a narrow strip of grass.

At Bayview Boulevard, students will cross State Road 580 with a crossing guard. About 35,000 vehicles travel the road each day. The speed limit is 50 mph.

An official from the school system's transportation department suggested students may need training on crossing the street.

It's one thing to teach a child to cross a neighborhood street, McKinney said, but it's another to expect them to cross major thoroughfares.

"Becky was 16 years old," McKinney said. "She knew how to cross the street."

Parents can't choose not to send their kids to school, she said, and most can't afford to go to work late because their children lack a safe way to get to school. She said the school system needs to realize that they are responsible for children's lives.

Two top schools transportation department officials were on vacation Monday and weren't available for comment, said Andrea Zahn, communications director. But she said the School Board bases its school busing decisions on state statutes.

"The safety team has already walked the route, it's my understanding, with some representatives of Oldsmar," said Zahn, "and will continue to monitor the situation."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Oldsmar parents get strong ally in busing fight 07/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 4:05pm]
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