Friday, Apr 18, 2014

Hernando school board considers options to bring bus routes back


BROOKSVILLE - A Hernando County School Board proposal to restore student transportation within 2-miles of schools won't cost the district a dime.

That's because parents could be paying for it.

One proposal, a fee-based student transportation program, would charge students living within 2-miles of schools $2 a day to ride the bus.

That equates to a maximum of $150 for the first semester and $180 for the second, according to the policy.

However the proposal states, for families with several children, student transportation costs cannot exceed $660 a year per family.

The proposal received a lukewarm reception from board members.

"I can't see myself charging fees for busing," board member John Sweeney said during a board workshop on the subject Tuesday.

Transportation Director Doug Compton, who was not director in 2011 when the school board voted to eliminate so-called courtesy busing within 2-miles of schools, did not offer up much support for the pay option, either.

"Basically we're already doing that," he said. "My thought is, if the seats are available and we're already running it: Why charge the parent?"

If adopted, students would use existing bus stops and would have to pay the fee in advance. Parents or guardians would submit an application to the school principal "requesting fee-based transportation privileges," and if the number of applying students exceeds the number of bus seats available, students would be selected at the beginning of the school year by a lottery system.

The charge to ride the bus would apply only to students attending their assigned schools, the proposal states, although students attending schools outside their zoned sites currently receive transportation free of charge.

"We need to raise the bar across the board. Make everybody even," parent Jennifer Pontrelli said during the workshop. "Our kids need to be safe, and taken care of."

School board members were much more vocal about two other options presented during Tuesday's workshop. One option would adjust bell start and dismissal times for the 2014-15 school year, and adjust non-transportation zones for all elementary school sites from 2 miles, to 1 mile.

Of the 2,160 elementary school students effected by the 2-mile restriction, this option could provide transportation for 1,309 of them, and would save approximately $250,000 in reduced route times, Compton said.

In order for that to happen Central High, Hernando High, Endeavor Academy, and Springstead High would begin school 10 minutes earlier and be dismissed between 10 and 20 minutes earlier.

All elementary schools would begin school about 35 minutes earlier and be dismissed 40 minutes earlier; all K-8 schools would begin and dismiss 10 minutes later; and all middle schools with the exception of West Hernando Middle would begin and dismiss 1 hour and 45 minutes later than the current schedule, under the proposal.

"We know the neediest are the youngest of our students who are farthest away," Compton said about why the changes were proposed.

Another option would include much of the same start and dismissal adjustments listed above, but would discontinue transportation for magnet school students and adjust non-transportation zones for all elementary and K-8 sites from 2 miles, to 1 mile.

That option would discontinue a total of 15 magnet school bus routes, which Compton said would save $850,000, as well as $250,000 in reduced route times.

Of the 3,138 total elementary and K-8 students effected by eliminated busing, this option would offer transportation to 2,071 students.

Board member Matt Foreman said he would not support an option that reduces busing for magnet schools.

"I don't know a whole lot of single mothers who can drive across town to Challenger," he said. "I would object to eliminating buses for those (schools)."

Compton will provide price estimates based on the options, and will distribute that information to board members one week before their next meeting.

The 2011 school board decision to eliminate so-called courtesy busing within two miles of county schools due to a lack in state funding went into effect at the start of this school year.

Dianne Bonfield was the only board member who voted to keep the buses at the time, and said Tuesday that a district's budget reflects its values.

"I'm flabbergasted that years ago we did away with it," she said. "We have time . to bring back the 2-mile busing. We spend a lot of money. What better way to spend it than on the safety of our kids?"

While Hernando County was one of the last counties in the state to eliminate courtesy busing, the decision ultimately created congestion in residential areas, and prompted county commissioners to pass an enforceable no parking ordinance within 750 feet of schools.

The decision also necessitated more than $139,000 in traffic safety improvement projects with increased student pedestrian traffic along busy roads.

The district's transportation department reduced its number of routes from 158 to 139, with an estimated savings of $54,000 per route for an annual savings of more than $1 million.

"We're talking one-third of one percent of our budget," said Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino. "I think we can find that somewhere."

The transportation department's pupil transportation budget increased by $823,648 this budget year compared to last for a total of $8,002,342.

The department also experienced an increase of $996,041 in its plant operations budget this year, for a total of $15,134,693, and an increase of $580,864 in its plant maintenance budget, for a total of $5,195,152.

The department's administrative technology budget increased by $64,466, for a total of $1,914,295.

Compton said those increases in the transportation budget were applied to raises for transportation employees, a 2 percent increase in their retirement and preventing decreases in health insurance benefits for three years.

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