TAMPA — To the commissioners, it was a small price to pay for a plan to protect thousands of Hillsborough County middle school students, forced to traverse broken sidewalks and dart across busy roadways to get to school.
Starting next school year, Hillsborough County will dedicate about $1 million each school year to employ crossing guards at all 43 of its public middle schools — a service previously provided only for elementary schools.
The middle school crossing guard program, unanimously approved by county commissioners during their Wednesday meeting, will be the first of its kind in the state. Yet hundreds of parents say it's a life-saving necessity that should have come two years ago, when the School Board cut costs associated with its courtesy busing service for middle and high school students. The change eliminated school bus transportation for about 7,500 students who live within a two-mile radius of their school.
"This is something that's desperately needed," County Commission Chairman Les Miller said. "In my district, since I've been here, we've probably had four students killed in my district trying to cross the street to get to school."
Commissioners agreed to budget $500,000 of the new fund to the county's public works department to fix sidewalks and add or improve crosswalks on streets to the county's middle schools, county budget director Tom Fesler said. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office will spend the rest of the fund on hiring and training 141 new crossing guards, 24 new supervisors and two community service aids tasked with administering the new program.
Until then, Sheriff Chad Chronister assured commissioners and an audience full of concerned parents and community activists at Wednesday's meeting that deputies on his Motor and Traffic Unit will remain a heavy presence in school zones.
"Let me assure you that your Sheriff's office will do anything to be that great partner that you need us to be," Chronister told the board. "Taking on that additional responsibility to make sure that the security of our children on campus and traveling to and from school campuses remains my utmost priority."
Wednesday's vote came three months after Commissioner Stacy White first floated the idea of using the county's general fund to expand the Sheriff's crossing guard program to all county middle schools. White pitched the idea to the board days after a 12-year-old boy in Riverview was struck by a car while crossing the street to get to Barrington Middle School one morning in early February.
That student survived the crash, as did another student who was struck by a car in the middle of a crosswalk while walking home from Randall Middle School on Friday, said Terry Fisher, president of the school's PTSA.
"Two years ago, our school was deemed a 'non-biker/walker school,' meaning no one could bike or walk to school because of busy roads deemed unsafe to cross," Fisher said. "Then, without any changes to infrastructure and despite the ever-increasing volume of traffic and distracted drivers, it was decided to take busing away from 600-plus students at our school."
The program will be implemented over three years, the Sheriff's office said. The department hopes to begin recruitment for new crossing guards immediately.
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Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.