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Courtesy busing cuts raise safety questions in Lithia

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and Hillsborough School District board member Melissa Snively, right, discuss the courtesy busing issue with parents Jo Amato and Tom Fahringer.
Published Jan. 4, 2017

LITHIA — FishHawk Ranch parents say the Hillsborough County School District's plan to save money by cutting bus service for middle and high school students living within two miles of their schools will endanger students and clog traffic on FishHawk Boulevard.

To prove their point, parents of students expected to be impacted by the August busing cuts were urged to drive their children to school Tuesday to demonstrate how additional cars dropping off students at Randall Middle School and Newsome High School will add to the usual weekday traffic melee along FishHawk Boulevard.

Although the planned protest didn't cause the traffic tie-ups organizers anticipated, it did attract the attention of county officials who gathered in the McDonald's parking lot across from Newsome to hear the parents' concerns.

Starling resident Jo Amato reached out to fellow parents on Facebook to organize the protest following the school board's decision to do away with "courtesy" bus service.

School district spokesman Jason Pepe said the district began offering courtesy bus service to FishHawk middle and high school students about 10 years ago during the widening of FishHawk Boulevard. The intent, he said, was to keep students from walking through a construction zone.

While the Florida Department of Education provides funding for courtesy buses for elementary students who would have to walk in hazardous areas, the cost for older students comes out of the school district's budget.

The district estimates it can save $4.5 million a year, beginning with the 7,500 middle and high school students countywide who now have courtesy busing. Cutbacks in elementary school are planned a year later. The School Board approved the plan 6-1 in December, with east Hillsborough representative Melissa Snively dissenting.

"As part of my job, I do risk management every day, weighing cost savings versus risks," said Snively, who operates a State Farm insurance franchise. "And I have an issue with putting saving money ahead of the safety of children."

Amato's group hopes to reverse the December decision.

District officials and board chairwoman Cindy Stuart say they are trying to bring order to a system that is now highly inconsistent; and that outside FishHawk, many children walk to school along difficult routes. The state does not judge these routes to be safe, but it makes transportation the parent's responsibility.

Such arguments do not sway the group at FishHawk, who reject the notion of gambling with children's safety to save money.

"It's going to create a very dangerous situation," said Amato. She drives her own daughter, who uses a wheelchair, to Newsome. "We already have problems with drivers jumping curbs to get around the traffic dropping off students at the high school. There's a danger of hitting students crossing FishHawk Boulevard."

There is no crosswalk at the intersection of FishHawk Boulevard and the western entrance into the high school where many students cross and there are no sidewalks on the north side of FishHawk Boulevard in front of Randall and Newsome. Students must use the sidewalks on the south side of FishHawk Boulevard and cross the busy road to get to school.

She said the challenge is heightened for students living in Fishhawk Trails off Lithia-Pinecrest Road. There are no sidewalks on the east side of the road so students will have to dodge traffic to cross Lithia-Pinecrest and use the sidewalks on the west side of the road or walk on the east side between a drainage ditch and the heavily traveled road.

District leaders have promised to meet with principals and local government agencies to brainstorm ways to improve walking conditions.

Hillsborough County Commission chairman Stacy White, who met with the parents Tuesday morning, said those fixes are possible. But they could cost more than what the district hopes to save with the busing cutbacks.

"The school district is causing 7,500 more cars to converge on these schools," he said. "It's bound to cause safety issues. And it would be ludicrous to pay for new infrastructure if it costs more than $4.5 million."

Snively said the school district has other options to save money that don't put lives at risk.

"We're talking $4.5 million out of a $3 billion total budget for the school district. That's something like .0013 percent of the budget," she said. "We can make up the money in other ways."

Contact D'Ann Lawrence White at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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