OLDSMAR — For years, Oldsmar has been paying the Pinellas County school district to bus more than 100 children to and from Oldsmar Elementary School because city officials were worried about youngsters traversing busy city streets.
But city leaders balked when just this month school officials told them it would cost $55,604 — $19,000 more than last school year — for the busing service this fall.
After passionate arguments by some city leaders and pleas from PTA members, the City Council on Tuesday reluctantly agreed to pay a daily rate of $309 for the service until they come up with another plan.
"This is a really tough pill for us to swallow," Mayor Jim Ronecker told Mike Burke, route and safety auditor for the school district.
But despite his frustration, Ronecker was adamant that busing is a necessity.
"If you don't go forward on this and one kid gets killed," he told fellow council members, "it's all on you."
He reminded his colleagues that two years ago, Vice Mayor Doug Bevis almost got hit by a truck when he tried to walk the route that children are supposed to walk to Oldsmar Elementary.
"I can't see those kids walking that route after what we witnessed," Ronecker said.
The route includes Tampa Road, Forest Lakes Boulevard and State Road 580. About a third of the children would have to navigate past auto mechanic shops and fast-food restaurants on Tampa Road, hike south on Forest Lakes Boulevard and cross wide, busy SR 580, where the speed limit is 50 mph.
Several council members wavered on the decision. But just one, Janice Miller, voted against giving the city manager the okay to negotiate a contract with the school district.
"I think this should be between the parents of these children and the School Board. You all need to go there and scream," Miller told parents who attended the meeting.
Council member Jerry Beverland said he was irritated because citizens are already paying taxes to support the school district.
"We're being double charged to bus these kids," Beverland said.
Before the fall of 2008, the school district provided bus service to children who lived west of Oldsmar Elementary, even though they lived within a 2-mile zone where bus service is not normally provided. The School Board made an exception because Forest Lakes Boulevard had been deemed hazardous.
Sidewalks were installed and the school district then considered the road safe enough for walking.
Traffic volume is another factor used to determine whether a road is too hazardous for children to walk. Traffic must exceed 4,000 vehicles per hour. A 2010 traffic survey at Forest Lakes and SR 580 counted 3,100 cars, Burke said.
Bevis said state law is too rigid and doesn't take human elements into account. Ronecker said the city may talk with the Florida Department of Transportation about making the intersections safer. He may also speak with state officials about reviewing requirements for determining hazardous walking conditions.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.