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The burdens of busing

Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox has delivered on his promise to shake up a transportation department that unfortunately needed a jolt. His proposed firings, suspensions, realignment and procedural changes send an unmistakable message in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy at a school bus stop.

The safety of schoolchildren is paramount.

No school transportation department should need such instruction, but the conduct Wilcox uncovered in the past few months was reckless and arrogant. District policy requires that no students be assigned bus stops that would force them to cross a multiple-lane highway, but route supervisors did so anyway. Those who answered the busing concerns of parents often would ignore them, and the practice became a perverse office joke. Complain too much and your complaints were tossed in the trash.

"I think it's fair to say that had the people in those roles done the kinds of things that we expect of them, we probably wouldn't have the need for this kind of restructuring," Wilcox said.

The forceful response should help set a course correction within the transportation department, but it won't make the department's job any easier or cheaper. As Pinellas prepares for its third year under a new choice student assignment plan, the burdens and costs of busing are mounting.

In the past two years, the transportation budget has jumped 45 percent, some $11.7-million that comes directly out of classroom spending. Wilcox recommended spending another $660,000 to get the job done right. Some School Board members, shaken by the death of Clearwater High School student Rebecca McKinney, are also looking at providing a greater level of busing at greater expense. Even with the extra investment, bus stops are fewer in number and farther from homes (and thus inherently less safe), students endure longer bus rides, and high schools must start their day at 7:05 a.m.

If board members want to seriously examine the state of school busing in Pinellas, they may need to begin with an inquiry they skipped in the hasty design of the choice plan. At what point does the burden of busing offset the perceived benefits of choice? Is there a more economical design that could better balance the desires of parents for neighborhood schools and those who want choice? This fall, the district will begin taking applications for the final year of court-mandated choice. Does the board have any idea how it may want to alter the plan for the future?

Wilcox's actions demonstrate he puts safety first. The next step may be to consider just how many children need to be standing at bus stops in the first place.