OLDSMAR — For the first time in four years, Oldsmar officials have decided not to foot the bill to bus dozens of children to and from Oldsmar Elementary School.
City Council members voted 4-1 against a busing agreement with the Pinellas County school district last week, after learning the district planned to hike the price next school year.
"Good gravy. That's not our responsibility. It's the School Board's responsibility," said Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland on Friday. "We have to answer to 14,000 other people. It's coming out of their taxes."
The district planned to charge Oldsmar around $43,800, about $7,800 more than this school year. But since school officials said the annual cost was actually closer to $59,000, council members weren't sure how much the district would bump up the price in years to come. So, most chose to abort the agreement entirely.
"I still don't think it was the right thing to do," said Mayor Jim Ronecker, the lone dissenter. "And I feel bad for those kids. I fought as hard as I could for them."
He suggested that the council okay the agreement for one more year. But other council members at Tuesday's meeting said that would just delay a difficult decision.
"It was not an easy decision to make because, of course, we want our kids to be safe. We want our community to be safe," council member Linda Norris said on Friday. "But there's a tipping point where it's too expensive."
The children live in various neighborhoods west of Oldsmar Elementary, in a zone within 2 miles of the school where bus service is not normally provided by the school district.
Like Beverland, Norris thinks it's unfair for the whole city to pay for a service that benefits a small number of residents. The service is transporting about 90 students in that area; Norris estimates that about 75 of those children actually live inside the city limits.
PTA member Chris Tauchnitz said he was disappointed with the decision, but he doesn't fault the council.
Still, he said, he didn't like seeing one government entity point to another government entity and say, "You guys aren't doing the right thing, therefore we're not going to do the right thing."
With busing off the table, Norris said, the city plans to initiate a number of safety measures to protect the children.
Oldsmar plans to pay an estimated $24,500 for three crossing guards at State Road 580 and Forest Lakes Boulevard to help children navigate one of the more treacherous intersections along the route.
The city will also ask the Florida Department of Transportation to install cautionary yellow flashing lights to highlight the school crossing. And deputies will keep an eye on the crossing for the first two weeks of school, Norris said.
Norris also suggested that people in the community help make sure that children cross the street safely. So far, both she and Beverland have volunteered to help out.
Those measures may be a partial solution for children who live at the greatest distance. They would have to navigate sidewalks past auto mechanic shops and fast-food restaurants on Tampa Road before hiking south on Forest Lakes Boulevard.
Tauchnitz, the Oldsmar Elementary PTA member, said he's working on getting in touch with parents before the end of this school year so they can arrange for other options, such as carpooling or walking children to and from school.
Before the fall of 2008, the school district provided bus service to children in these neighborhoods even though they generally lived too close to qualify for bus service. The district made an exception because Forest Lakes Boulevard had been deemed hazardous. But after sidewalks were installed, the district considered the road safe enough for walking.
Oldsmar decided to pay to bus the kids.
Last year, Oldsmar officials didn't get much notice before learning the price was going to climb. It was June when the council learned the city would have to pay $55,604 — $19,000 more than the previous school year. They agreed to that price temporarily, but just as they were poised to find another option, state Sen. Jack Latvala convinced school superintendent John Stewart to maintain the previous year's price of $36,000.
Then, early this month, Rick McBride, transportation director for the school district, informed city officials that the annual cost for the busing was more than $59,000. The school district offered to prorate the additional $23,400 over three years. But city officials said they had no guarantee that costs for busing would not skyrocket down the road.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.