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  1. Education

Courtesy busing cuts clear the Hillsborough School Board, affecting 7,500 students

TAMPA — After an hourlong debate, the Hillsborough County School Board voted 6-1 Tuesday to end bus transportation for nearly 7,500 middle and high school students who live within 2 miles of their schools.

Opposing the move was member Melissa Snively, whose east Hillsborough district includes 2,300 of the students affected by the cost-cutting measure.

Close to 1,000 live in upscale FishHawk Ranch, where streets already are gridlocked every morning with school traffic.

Ending busing for students close to the FishHawk schools will only add to that problem. "I really believe that the risk we are taking here could be detrimental, and it's not really taking care of our students," Snively warned.

But others on the board, including Susan Valdes and Chairwoman Cindy Stuart, pointed out that tens of thousands of students throughout Hillsborough already rely on their parents for transportation. "Think about our inner-city kids, who have walked these streets for a long, long time," Valdes said.

Stuart warned that if the board did not establish clear and consistent guidelines, even more parents would ask for busing.

Phasing out courtesy busing — which does not receive dedicated state funding — was one of the recommendations of the Gibson Consulting Group, which is working with the district to reduce spending and shore up its reserve account.

Other consultants also have flagged Hillsborough's lenient and somewhat sloppy practice of accommodating families who live near their children's schools.

Jim Beekman, who took over in 2014 as general manager of transportation, said the practice dates back at least 20 years. The problem, he said, is that buses were awarded based on temporary hazards, such as construction zones. But "once the hazard was corrected, we didn't have a process to take them off."

Snively stood firm even after Stuart remarked that "we've got to decide tonight if we are going to be fiscally responsible." Snively, a business owner who prides herself in being fiscally conservative, said the savings of several million dollars are not worth the risk and disruption. She described the plan as "rash," a description that was rejected by Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer.

The changes take effect in August, which gives parents eight months to prepare. The district will conduct community meetings in February to advise families on alternate ways to get their children to school, including carpools, organized walking groups and public transportation.

"We know that change is not easy on anyone for any parent that may be going through this," Beekman said.

Parents will receive forms to document pedestrian hazards. But that option is not intended as an appeal, but a mechanism to correct any errors the district staff might have made.

The district plans to phase out elementary courtesy busing, as well, although not until the 2018-19 school year.