On the first day back to school after the holidays, Pinellas School superintendent Julie Janssen sent the right signals Monday by dispatching monitors to busy bus stops and assembling a task force to recommend changes to a dangerous busing scheme. But even before a teen was killed running to a bus stop last month, the weaknesses of a system that forces thousands of students to wait for buses in the dark along major roads were clear.
The district's own analysis released days before Pinellas Park High junior Nora Hernandez-Huapilla was hit by a car highlighted the problems:
• Planners were blindsided when more than 8,500 high school students chose to stay at their old schools by riding buses on "arterial routes" after the School Board grandfathered them in last year. (Only 19,000 high schoolers, including magnet students and those attending the school in their zone, ride a bus.)
• Because of software limitations and bureaucracy, no one had an overall view of the entire system. That led to planners unknowingly overcrowding some bus stops with students headed to different schools. One stop initially was assigned 187 students headed to 10 different high schools.
• Exact corners for stops were not specified because bus drivers usually pick them, and district safety team members and route selectors did not communicate enough. The transportation staff "acknowledged mistakes were made,'' but no one was held accountable.
While the report points out clear shortcomings in the design of the bus system, the School Board also is responsible. It is the School Board that caved to political pressure and chose to keep providing buses on the cheap to high school students who were neither attending the school closest to home nor a specialized magnet program. The better choice would have been to allow high school students to keep attending their current school but not provide bus service, which would have saved money and avoided the hasty creation of a poorly designed system.
Now Janssen's task force should review all of the options. She plans to include at least three students and three parents, traffic safety officials from the county and the state, school principals and other district officials. The task force will be named by week's end and report to Janssen by March 1.
The top priority should be safety, and any recommendation should include a price tag. Some adjustments, such as buses stopping at each corner of a busy intersection, would cost more time and money. Other ideas, such as overhauling the system so students on these arterial routes catch the bus at school sites instead of along busy roads, may prove attractive but unworkable. Or the district could do what it should have done in the first place and stop providing buses to grandfathered high school students after this year.
Janssen continues to point to the district's policy that it is the parent's responsibility to get the student to the bus stop. But it is the school district's responsibility to design a reasonably safe bus system. Bus stops that prompt students to run across six lanes of traffic before dawn fail that basic test.