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SCHOOLS PARTIALLY RESTORE BUS CUTS

A compromise aims to ease the concerns of parents of Wimauma Elementary students.

As parents filed into the Good Samaritan Mission, school superintendent MaryEllen Elia worked the room with a bright smile. She touched a mother on the shoulder, hoisted a baby into her arms.

She faced a tough crowd. Two weeks ago, when parents in this rural, largely Hispanic community learned the school district had cut 17 school bus stops, they were outraged.

Without the buses, they said, about 200 children would have to walk up to 2 miles to Wimauma Elementary - past stray dogs and sex offenders, crossing busy State Road 674.

On Tuesday, Elia offered what she said was a solution.

The district will restore two of the bus stops to keep some children from having to cross the highway on foot.

Bus service to after-school programs in nearby Bethune Park also will be restored.

And Wimauma Elementary principal Roy Moral will open the school earlier, at 6:30 a.m., so parents who go to work early can first drop off their children.

Later, schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said he expected the two restored bus stops to serve about 125 students.

By law, school districts are required to bus only students who live farther than 2 miles from school. In Wimauma, the district previously went beyond that standard, serving bus stops within the 2-mile radius.

But with finances tight, Hegarty said, such "courtesy" busing will soon be cut, not just in Wimauma but throughout the county.

The district's proposed compromise in Wimauma, he said, is "an example of the stuff we'll be doing elsewhere."

As Elia spoke on Tuesday morning, pausing for an interpreter to translate her words to Spanish, the audience was mostly silent.

They applauded when she announced that the after-school service would be restored, and when School Board member Susan Valdes, speaking in Spanish, promised them that the district would ensure their children's safety.

But when Elia asked for questions, few spoke up.

Laura Cruz, who works at the mission, said many in Wimauma don't like to draw attention to themselves. They fear immigration police, she said.

As the meeting broke up, Demetria Meneses said she wasn't satisfied with Elia's compromise.

"I came to see if something could be done, but nothing was solved," she said through an interpreter.

Her children, ages 5 and 8, rode the bus. She has no driver's license, and she said she won't be able to work if she has to walk with them to and from school.

She doesn't want to let them walk alone.

As she spoke, another woman, Yessenia Avalos, came up to her.

She had already spoken one on one with some of the school officials. She encouraged Meneses to do so, too.

"If this is serious to you, you need to go and let them know," she said.

Meneses agreed, and Avalos led her away.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

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