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KIDS FACE A LONG, HARD WALK TO SCHOOL

Shifty characters and menacing dogs are what kids will encounter if school bus stops are cut, parents say.

The cafeteria, small and hot, was packed with 100 parents and their children squirming on small seats. The mothers and fathers - some pushing Dora the Explorer strollers, others freshly changed from work clothes - waited patiently for the school district officials to speak.

Children living within 2 miles of Wimauma Elementary School will no longer have bus service when school starts Aug. 20, Karen Strickland, a bus system manager, told the crowd.

For many, the July 19 night meeting was the first word they heard about changing bus stops.

Strickland described a financial crunch, using words like "best practices" and "state criteria." Grim-faced parents had different issues. Sexual predators along the routes to school. Speeding trucks. Early work hours that conflict with school times.

The change affects about 200 children who will now have to walk to school, up from 30 students last year, according to school officials. The district deleted 17 bus stops in Wimauma as part of a pilot project for southeast Hillsborough County that will expand to the rest of the county next school year.

Magnet schools, school choice and a shortage of bus drivers are behind the cuts, Strickland said. The state doesn't reimburse the county for transporting children who live within 2 miles of a school. State standards allow students to walk up to 2 miles.

How, parents asked, could school officials expect small children to walk that far in a rural town with few to no sidewalks, across a highway with trucks hauling lumber and produce?

Parents grew agitated when district officials repeated answers. "They're not answering our questions," shouted parent Bernice Medina. "Why are we paying taxes? For this?" yelled Felipe Orenday, father of a 7-year-old boy.

Danger near school

In a town where parents leave for the fields and other jobs by sunrise, children walk straight from the house to the corner bus stop. In the afternoon, many students take the bus to Bethune Park, where parents pick them up after work. That bus stop will be cut.

"There are a lot of [stray] dogs in Wimauma that are going to bite these children, a lot of bad people looking for children," said Juanita Ortiz, mother of girls ages 10 and 8.

The school opens its doors at 7:30 a.m., but parents said early work hours mean they won't be able to drive their children to school. Wimauma's roadsides are overgrown, their shoulders often strewn with broken beer bottles. Cars race through side streets. Unemployed men roam the neighborhood.

Twenty-two sex offenders - including four sexual predators - live within 5 miles of Wimauma Elementary, state records show.

Strickland said the district transportation department can't fix what are law enforcement and community problems.

State Road 674 isn't considered hazardous under state guidelines, she said, and the lack of sidewalks isn't enough to warrant busing as long as shoulders and rights of way exist.

Sheriff's Maj. John Marsicano attended the meeting and told parents he would try to get a second crossing guard for children along State Road 674.

Parents talked of starting a petition, but district officials told them they aren't singling out Wimauma. Families throughout the county will go through similar changes within the next two years.

An option suggested

Wimauma Elementary principal Roy Moral said his families face unique problems.

"Many of our parents, because either they are blue collar or migrant farm workers, they have very limited options," he said. "During season they have to be out there at 6 a.m."

The area offers limited day care options, even if the parents could afford them, he said.

"This is not a suburban area. This is a rural area," he said.

Moral is considering opening the school earlier, either 6 a.m. or 6:30 a.m., so parents have a safe place to drop off the children before they leave for work.

Parent Esther Heredia said she liked Moral's idea. She leaves for her job as a restaurant hostess at 7 a.m. Her husband, who hauls sod, gets called out as early as 4 a.m. Their daughters, ages 5, 7, and 11, will all have to walk unless the school opens early.

But the afternoons still pose a problem. Before, the girls took the bus to Bethune Park, where Heredia picked them up after work. Two years ago in Wimauma, she ran off a man who appeared to be chasing an 8-year-old girl.

At the meeting, she asked district officials if they would walk with students to school one day after school starts.

They promised they would.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Voice your opinion

The Good Samaritan Mission invites the public to a town hall meeting on the bus stop issue Tuesday from 8 to 9 a.m. at the mission, 14920 Balm-Wimauma Road.

FAST FACTS

More bus news

Parents whose children attend Bloomingdale High feeder schools can obtain bus schedules for the coming year Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the Bloomingdale High auditorium. School transportation officials will field questions. Affected schools are Alafia, Cimino, Brooker, part of Buckhorn, part of Kingswood, Clair Mel, Burns, Rodgers, Dowdell and Bloomingdale.

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