Hernando School Board members would like to renew bus transportation for up to 3,000 elementary and K-8 students living within 2 miles of their schools, a courtesy service the board discontinued in 2011 to help close an $11 million budget shortfall.
It's a noble attempt to boost children's safety, but the staff's initial proposals to restart all or part of the service bring as many questions as answers, including the objectionable idea of eliminating busing for magnet schools to offset higher transportation expenses elsewhere. It's a misguided concept that will dilute attendance at the district's hallmark schools and reinforce the troubling image that the magnets are elitist programs aimed at a higher-income population. Ensuring that only those attending come from families with the time and wherewithal to transport their children significant distances is problematic and board member Matt Foreman was correct to try to derail the suggestion at a Dec. 10 workshop.
Just as troubling is the inability to identify appropriate revenue sources to restart the courtesy transportation program. Board members wisely quelled the notion of following a Lake County School District plan to charge for courtesy bus rides, but their own alternative also was ill-conceived. Board members John Sweeney and Dianne Bonfield both raised the idea of using sales tax dollars for transportation. "The half-cent sales tax, I'm sure the public will support that for busing,'' Sweeney said.
Not likely. It's illegal and board members should end this conversation. The state requires the infrastructure surcharge — a half-cent-on-the-dollar tax that expires next year, but could be renewed by the voters in November — to be spent on capital costs. That means building schools, remodeling classrooms, improving technology or acquiring new buses. The district could not use the sales tax revenue to buy fuel for the fleet or pay salaries and benefits to bus drivers. Suggesting otherwise will simply confuse the public.
The staff's best suggestion is still complicated and involves altering school start times, including pushing back the beginning and ending of the middle school day by 105 minutes. But the proposed schedule provides sufficient time for buses to make three runs each morning and to transport an additional 1,300 children — all of the elementary students living more than a mile from their schools. Doing so means 850 children living less than a mile from school would still need to walk or be transported by adults.
Other ideas like a TBARTA-administered share-a-ride program for school families or establishing a centralized large-scale bus stop — similar to the park-and-ride concept for mass transit commuters — came from the staff and public and are concepts worthy of further exploration.
Keeping children safe on their way to and from schools in an imperative objective that must be shared by all if it is to be administered successfully. The School Board should be ready to offer more than wishful platitudes and parents must realize that the district shouldn't be shouldering this responsibility exclusively.