OLDSMAR — Parents of more than 100 Oldsmar Elementary School children are breathing a bit easier, thanks to an intervention from a state senator.
City leaders on Tuesday night unanimously agreed to continue paying the Pinellas County School District to bus the children to and from school.
The City Council was poised to stop paying for the buses in January because the school district hiked the price by $19,000 a year.
But several members of the council changed their minds after they learned that Sen. Jack Latvala stepped in and convinced interim school superintendent John Stewart to maintain last year's busing price of $36,000.
All it took was a face-to-face conversation with Stewart a couple of weeks ago, said Latvala, R-Clearwater.
"He was very accommodating," said Latvala, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "He wants kids to be safe."
In June, shortly after the council learned about the district's plans to raise costs, Mayor Jim Ronecker contacted Latvala for help.
"He really stepped up to the plate for us and made it happen," Ronecker said.
It took a few months to resolve the issue because the school district was in "turmoil," said Latvala, referring to tension mounting prior to the firing of former superintendent Julie Janssen.
"The parents are relieved," said Oldsmar Elementary PTA member Chris Tauchnitz. But, he said, "We need to find a long-term solution."
Oldsmar is the only Pinellas city that pays to bus children to and from school.
Before the fall of 2008, the school district provided bus service to many children who lived west of Oldsmar Elementary, even though they lived within a two-mile zone where bus service is not normally provided. The school district made an exception because Forest Lakes Boulevard had been deemed hazardous.
Sidewalks were installed and the district considered the road safe enough for walking.
But city leaders didn't, so they stepped in and agreed to pay the district to bus the children to school.
After council members learned the district planned to hike the cost, they reluctantly agreed to pay a higher price temporarily to give parents more time to come up with alternate plans.
A few weeks ago, many parents were still hustling to come up with ways to get their children to school safely without school buses, Tauchnitz said.
About a third of the children would have to navigate past auto mechanic shops and fast-food restaurants on Tampa Road, then hike south on Forest Lakes Boulevard and cross busy State Road 580.
"I couldn't imagine a parent letting their kids walk that route," said Ronecker, whose daughter is a second-grader at Oldsmar Elementary.
Latvala said he is investigating how the route might be declared "hazardous." Such a classification would require the district to provide busing.
"I don't think it's fair the city should have to take this on on a permanent basis," he said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.