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Walking or biking 2 miles to school can be dangerous. Can Hernando schools find the money to bus more kids?

 
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times Damian Moran, 13, of Spring Hill, stands in the driveway of his home in Spring Hill on Nov. 13, almost a week after he was hit by a car on Northcliffe Blvd while crossing Landover Boulevard en route to his 8th-grade classes at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill. Moran, who said he was hit by a woman who was driving a Ford Focus, suffered a broken clavicle, 17 stitches in his knee, 5 stitches in his shoulder, 4 stitches in his elbow and a contusion on the side of his head, despite wearing a helmet.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Damian Moran, 13, of Spring Hill, stands in the driveway of his home in Spring Hill on Nov. 13, almost a week after he was hit by a car on Northcliffe Blvd while crossing Landover Boulevard en route to his 8th-grade classes at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill. Moran, who said he was hit by a woman who was driving a Ford Focus, suffered a broken clavicle, 17 stitches in his knee, 5 stitches in his shoulder, 4 stitches in his elbow and a contusion on the side of his head, despite wearing a helmet.
Published Nov. 23, 2018

SPRING HILL — Damian Moran sat in the back of the ambulance and wondered how he got there.

He had a chunk missing from his bicycle helmet and a gap in his memory about 10 minutes wide.

Because Hernando County schools don't bus students who live less than 2 miles from their schools, Damian usually rode his bike the 1.8 miles from his home on Patch Street to Explorer K-8.

But on this morning, Nov. 7, a gray Ford Focus turned a corner by the school and struck the 13-year-old as he crossed the street.

Even before the collision, Nicole Moran, Damian's mother, worried that the district's busing rules endangered children who sometimes had to walk or bike just feet away from high-speed roads. Other parents complained about upended mornings and congested drop-off lines.

These concerns have fueled debate on Florida's busing laws for years. But they may be reaching critical mass in Hernando County. A new school board member has promised to cut the busing radius from 2 miles to 1. A county commissioner floated an unusual offered to buy buses for the school district. And the school board will make transportation its top lobbying priority for the 2019 state Legislature, as it hopes to solve a safety and financial quagmire that's left the district spinning its wheels.

"It's nothing but disaster for the kids," Moran said. "They need to have buses."

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Florida funds school transportation based on the number of students who live more than 2 miles from their zoned schools. The state makes a few exceptions, including for student pregnancy, disability and hazardous road conditions.

School districts that want to bus students inside the 2-mile zone face extra out-of-pocket costs. In 2015, the Hernando County School Board officially cut funding for transportation within 2 miles.

Tampa Bay area school districts all operate similarly. Hillsborough County schools drew criticism after deciding in late 2016 to phase out busing within 2 miles. Last year, a Manatee County student who was ineligible for busing was killed while crossing a five-lane road on the way to school.

The Hernando County School District's finances are healthier than they've been in years, but Superintendent John Stratton said the district would need more state funding to bring back the short-distance busing.

"We're talking to the tune of millions of dollars," he said. "It's hard to put it back when we don't have the revenue coming in."

Some Florida legislators have tried, without success, to expand busing. A state Senate bill from earlier this year would have decreased the bus-eligible distance from 2 miles to 1.5.

The bill died in committee.

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In September, Stratton appeared at a meeting of the Hernando County commission to give a regular update on the school district. A few minutes in, Commissioner Wayne Dukes made an unusual proposal regarding the 2-mile rule.

The board has plans to build sidewalks over the next 10 years, which may help assuage safety concerns. But sidewalks are expensive and time-consuming projects that rely in part on the state Department of Transportation. What if, in the meantime, the board bought the district some school buses?

"We should be able to help a little bit," Dukes said in an interview earlier this month.

School officials have said they need 15 more buses to tighten the busing zone to 1.5 miles. New buses cost about $113,000 each.

Stratton told the Tampa Bay Times that he appreciated the county's offer. But adding more buses still would saddle the district with high costs, he said.

Each new bus route carries recurring costs — driver pay, maintenance, fuel — of about $50,000 each year, district officials said in a recent presentation to the school board. To bus every student in the district would cost $1.25 million annually that the state doesn't fund. Even reducing the busing radius from 2 miles to 1.5 would cost $750,000 each year.

And that doesn't account for the difficulty of finding and keeping school bus drivers amid a national shortage.

"I'm a transportation guy," said Ralph Leath, the district transportation director. "I'd love to bus everyone, personally. However, I don't have the money to do it."

School board members plan to make expanding transportation the district's top lobbying priority for the upcoming legislative session.

In past years, the state legislature has focused on improving walking safety by building sidewalks and crosswalks, which benefit the community as a whole, said state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, whose district includes Hernando County.

"If this is one of their top priorities, to get additional transportation dollars, that's something we will go to work on," Simpson said.

Newly elected school board member Jimmy Lodato has pledged to find a way to bus all students who live more than a mile from their schools.

Expanding busing only for elementary school students and collaborating with county commissioners could help the school board find room in its budget and convince legislators to help fund the expansion, Lodato said.

"We will solve that transportation problem," he said. "We will get it down to one mile. And we won't stop until we get this done."

***

Jacqueline Spegal grew anxious behind the wheel as she watched a group of kids pedal toward Powell Middle School. Among them was her 12-year-old son, a sixth-grader at Powell, almost exactly 2 miles away from the entrance to their apartment complex off Anderson Snow Road.

Spegal teaches English online to students from other countries, and time differences mean she works through the morning. She normally drives her son to school, she said, but because of long drop-off lines, it can take nearly an hour, eating up much of the time she could be working.

So one morning this year, despite her worries, she let her son ride his bike to school with other kids from the apartments. And she followed in her car to make sure they got there without trouble.

Some areas had no sidewalks, and when the kids had trouble biking through grass, they rode in the middle of the 55-mph road. They got distracted; they stopped to pet dogs. By the time they made it to school, sweat and sandburs covered them.

Spegal knew she'd never let her son, who has asthma, bike to school again. And even though driving him disrupted her morning and her work, she knew that other kids didn't have any option but to walk or bike.

That afternoon, her son biked back home. His face glowed red when he came inside. A hand gripped his inhaler.

"Mom," he said, "I can't do it again."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.