The Hernando School Board correctly picked classroom instruction over expensive courtesy bus rides last week, killing a large-scale plan to bus students living within 2 miles of their schools next school year.
After months of deliberations, School Board members really had little choice. To acquire the necessary buses in time, the purchase order needed to be made last week — the same day board members digested the County Commission's irresponsible rejection of a school impact fee request and the additional dim news that the district faces a projected $2.2 million deficit next year. Pushing forward with a costly busing plan would have been imprudent in light of the district's uncertain finances and fears that classroom cuts could be forthcoming. (New routes cost about $40,000 each in fuel and labor and every new bus carries a $105,000 price tag. )
Instead, a board majority indicated they would support a so-called revenue-neutral option. It is far from perfect, but it is reasonable way to bus additional elementary school children each day. By altering school starting and ending times, the district can ensure existing buses are available to make three runs daily. The extra time allows the district to transport an additional 1,300 children — or all of the elementary students living more than a mile from their schools.
Under state law, school districts are reimbursed only for the cost of transporting children living more than 2 miles from their schools. The district scrapped its courtesy service in 2011 to help close an $11 million budget shortfall, but board members routinely revisit the issue because of the lack of sidewalks around the county and the lingering memory of a 2008 tragedy in which a middle school student was killed when she was struck by a vehicle as she walked to school.
Parents seemed to have grown accustomed to what used to be considered an inconvenience. School Board member Dianne Bonfield, who unreasonably wanted to delay a final decision until January 2015, said she had not been contacted by one parent seeking a resumption of the courtesy service. Other board members wisely declined to delay the inevitable.
Adding bus service for 1,300 children, with no net cost to the district, is a smart plan driven by economic realities. The changing start times will require some juggling, notably for middle school extracurricular activities, but keeping more children safe on their way to and from school is a highly desirable outcome worth embracing.