OLDSMAR — This city's children won't have to navigate busy city streets to get to Oldsmar Elementary School when school starts next month.
Even though bus service will be significantly more expensive in the coming school year, Oldsmar leaders on Tuesday agreed to pay the school district for busing until the city comes up with another plan.
Oldsmar is the only Pinellas city that pays to bus children to and from school. For several years it has done so for children who don't qualify for district busing and would have to walk to school along routes the city considers dangerous. But last month, Oldsmar City Council members learned the city would have to pay $55,604 — $19,000 more than last school year.
Council members voted 3-2 in favor of a school-year busing agreement. The school district would charge the city a daily rate of $309 to bus about 126 children, with an option to end the service with a 30-day notice.
Two council members, Jerry Beverland and Janice Miller, opposed the agreement because they favored a shorter contract term ending Dec. 31.
With no limit, there would be little urgency for the school and parents to work out other options for getting their children to school, Miller said.
But Mayor Jim Ronecker said such a deadline would leave little time for parents to make other arrangements. Vice Mayor Doug Bevis and council member Linda Norris said there were no drawbacks to approving the contract as is because of the 30-day cancellation option.
If they walked to school, the students would have to navigate Tampa Road, Forest Lakes Boulevard and State Road 580, which has a 50 mph speed limit in the area.
City officials are also exploring the possibility of placing three crossing guards at Forest Lakes and SR 580 at an estimated annual cost of $19,395.
School officials said the busing cost is going up because the district has previously undercharged the city. The new price takes into account overhead costs for items like bus compounds, trainers and supervisors, they said.
Ronecker, who passionately supports busing the children, said he turned to state Sen. Jack Latvala for help. And Latvala's "going to bat" for the city, he said.
Latvala, who is on vacation in Maine, said he contacted Steve Swartzel, the legislative lobbyist for the Pinellas County School Board, to see if there is a way to phase in the increase. Latvala's still waiting to see if that's a possibility.
Ronecker said he also inquired about raising the speed limit on SR 580 to 55 mph, because that would help meet the state's criteria to classify the path as "hazardous."
"And by definition the school district would have to pick up the children at no cost to us," Ronecker said.
Latvala, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he could talk to the Florida Department of Transportation about raising the speed limit, but he really doesn't want to do that.
"Five miles per hour seems like a ridiculous amount to determine whether something is safe or not," Latvala said by phone. "And it may not be good for the population as a whole."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.