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School bus transportation could end for nearly 7,500 Hillsborough students next year

Students unload from buses at Lennard High School in Ruskin. Lennard has 183 students who receive courtesy bus rides, which are being phased out next year by Hillsborough County school officials to save money. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Dec. 1, 2016

TAMPA — Nearly 7,500 students in Hillsborough County's middle and high schools could lose their bus rides in the next school year as the district continues to cut spending.

The students are "courtesy riders" who live within two miles of their schools. That's the point at which the state considers transportation a parent's responsibility.

The changes, which take effect in August, represent part of a plan that will extend later to elementary schools.

In addition to 7,495 who stand to lose bus rides, 803 will keep their rides because of roadside hazards. The state criteria for hazards include traffic volume, speed limit and whether a road has a wide enough shoulder. The law does not require a sidewalk.

Some of the existing courtesy routes were likely triggered by short-term issues, such as construction, and never deleted. "We don't know why some of these were put there in the first place," said Jim Beekman, general manager of transportation since 2014.

Gibson Consulting Group, which is working with the district to cut spending, estimated Hillsborough can save $9.5 million a year by phasing out courtesy busing. Beekman said the savings will be lower, as some buses will remain in service.

The School Board is expected to vote on the plan on Tuesday. After that, parents will get notices and forms they can use to document roadside hazards.

The form is a chance to correct any errors. "We had a lot of territory to cover in a short period of time," Beekman said.

The form also asks about factors not included in the state law — such as poor lighting. The district will pass those concerns on to government agencies that can correct them.

Parents will get information about pedestrian safety. But it could be a tough sell.

A report this year by the Tampa Bay Times, using state data, showed there were 51 pedestrian fatalities in Hillsborough County in 2015. Hillsborough's roads were the deadliest in the Tampa Bay area, which Smart Growth America ranked as the second most dangerous place to walk in the United States.

Parents also will get information about public transportation and carpool services.

The same process will be repeated for elementary schools before the 2018-19 school year.

Phasing out courtesy rides is one of many steps the district is taking to cut $130 million in spending and protect its reserve account and credit rating.

In discussing busing earlier in the year, school officials pointed out that Hillsborough is more generous than other districts. But they are aware that, in taking away a service, they will likely incur resistance.

"I can imagine that with Facebook and every thing else, it's just going to blow up," Beekman said Thursday. "There will be some lively board meetings."

The district will host community meetings for parents. At some schools there will be adjustments to parent drop-off areas, including carpool lanes.

"Obviously, safety was first and foremost in our mind," said School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart, who also serves on the board of the Metropolitan Planning Organization. School leaders will work with the MPO and other agencies to make sure parents and students have access to the resources they need, from bicycle racks at schools to "walking school buses" in which students travel together.

"It's very intentional that we're doing it early," Stuart said. "We're not doing it over the summer. People have a lot of time to plan."

Beekman pointed out that for many parents, getting children to and from school is already a way of life. "We have over 50,000 elementary kids that live within two miles that do not receive bus transportation," he said.

As for the pedestrian hazards, he said these problems need to be addressed by the community.

"Parents should be concerned about their children 24/7," he said. "The same path that that child may walk or bike or get to school, that same road, they're crossing to go to 7-Eleven, to use the basketball courts on a weekend."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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