LAND O’LAKES — With classes set to resume in two weeks, Maxwell Askins looked at the walk his sixth-grade daughter would have to take to and from Pine View Middle School now that her bus service is canceled.
He didn’t like what he saw.
Along the 2-mile trip, which Askins said took about 45 minutes, she’d have to cross busy Collier Parkway and travel a weedy stretch of Parkway Boulevard that has no sidewalks. She would also pass Cypress Creek Preserve, where people frequently hang out and drink.
“I don’t want my daughter out there walking by it,” Askins said.
He and several of his Dupree Lakes subdivision neighbors urged the Pasco County School Board on Tuesday to find a solution. They had school bus service a year ago, but for this year the district ended rides for children living within 2 miles of their middle and high schools.
The district’s move, which affects about 3,000 students, came in response to a driver shortage that left many buses arriving late to school daily. The state does not fund or require transportation for secondary students who can walk 2 miles or less to school.
Pasco has struggled to fill nearly three dozen driver vacancies. Several districts across the state are in the same situation.
Officials first sent out information about the changes in the spring, generating a round of complaints at that time. In recent weeks, the district has received hundreds more emails and calls from communities east to west, all raising concerns about their lost bus service.
Assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn said the district did not want to take such a step. But it had to respond to the reality that there aren’t enough bus drivers to transport children outside the 2-mile zone, much less keep the “courtesy” rides, which the state does not pay for, she said.
“No matter where you draw the line, there is somebody on the other side,” Kuhn said.
Some Dupree Lakes parents suggested the district unfairly left their homes out of the busing zone through what they called “creative geography.” Parent Michele Ierna said a GPS system measured the distance from her home to Pine View middle at slightly over 2 miles, yet the district said it was 1.95 miles.
Ierna called the district and was told the measure was made from the edge of her property to the end of the school’s bus entrance. That would not get her son into the school, she said.
Meanwhile, children living a few houses away will ride buses past the walkers, Ierna and others noted.
Kuhn said the district has used the same computer system to measure bus and walking routes for three years, and it’s based on state rules. The rule states walking distance “shall be measured from the closest pedestrian entry point of the property where the student resides to the closest pedestrian entry point of the assigned school building or to the assigned bus stop.”
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She stressed that the district is not requiring students to walk to school. Rather, she said, it is telling the families that they are responsible for getting their children to school without district bus transportation.
That position doesn’t answer the concerns of parents like Bhuneeta Parsan, who told the board that she’s a single mom who works far from the route her kids will travel to Pine View Middle.
“God forbid something happens to my kids,” she said, raising worries about known sex offenders who live along the route. “Every kid deserves to feel safe getting to school.”
Board members said they have talked to county commissioners about building sidewalks and to lawmakers about altering school bus laws. A bill to redefine safe walking routes failed this spring.
The district tried to expand its before- and after-school programs for middle schools but could not find enough staff, board member Colleen Beaudoin said. Its request for the National Guard to drive routes was rejected by the state, Kuhn said, and a private company failed to generate any leads for substitute drivers.
“I don’t know the answer,” said Beaudoin, who lives near Dupree Lakes. “I hope that people will work together” to find approaches such as carpools.
Askins argued it’s not enough for officials to say they’re listening. If they don’t act, he suggested, maybe voters will find someone who will.
“You giving me empathy doesn’t solve the problem,” he told the board. “My daughter’s safety is a concern for me.”
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