BROOKSVILLE - Heather Bohnenberger spends four hours a day walking her two children to school. She walks them 2.9 miles to Challenger K-8 in the mornings, walks back home, and then does the same routine in the afternoons.
"I have congestive heart failure, and by the time I get home I'm just so winded," she said. "I have a letter at home stating I was denied busing for my children, who are special needs. They told me my kids were able to walk." Bohnenberger said her daughter has a congenital condition that leaves her prone to seizures. Since the state and the Hernando County School Board voted to eliminate funding for student transportation within 2 miles of school, Bohnenberger said her daughter has had a seizure while at school. "They released her and allowed her to walk 2.9 miles back after having a seizure," she said.
Since their decision to eliminate the bus routes, which impacted 4,500 students in Hernando, 3,000 of whom are in elementary school, board members have heard from parents like Bohnenberger.
At a workshop this week, nearly all members said they supported bringing back the bus service. School board member Cynthia Moore said she spent time recently with a mother who spends 1 1?2 hours walking her 6-year-old to school with her 2-year-old daughter on her back.
By the time the students get to school, they're exhausted, Moore said.
"We got to come up with something," said Moore. "I, unfortunately, voted against it the first time, but I won't the second time."
Transportation Director Doug Compton told the board he has spent the last year updating the department's 2007 operations handbook to reflect recent changes in the law.
Among those changes includes the legislature's decision to eliminate funding for so-called courtesy busing. Board members were reluctant to approve the revisions, and itemize the handbook for a later vote with legal wording giving the state's position on the matter.
"We know having an 8-year-old with a 50 pound backpack walk 2 miles to school is unreasonable," said board member John Sweeney. "Now we're looking at approving a handbook that's says, 'Statute says two miles.' I just think it's putting the cart before the horse."
Compton, who was not director in 2011 when the board voted to eliminate the busing, said including the statute in the handbook does not prohibit the board from budgeting for the transportation services if they choose.
"Our vision has to drive the budget, the budget should not drive our vision," board member Dianne Bonfield said. "We have streets not paved, and we're going to have children walking along the roadsides, and it's a dangerous situation."
Crossing guard Paul Cormier, who works the intersection of Northcliffe and Landover boulevards, said drivers have cursed at him and flashed obscene hand jesters as he tried to get students and pedestrians across the road safely. Since the board eliminated busing for 4,500 students, Cormier said he's seen very young students crossing streets that he didn't see before. Recently, a girl about 3 feet tall ran passed him one morning with no shoes on. "I said, 'How old are you?'" Cormier said; he said she told him she was five. "I said, 'Where are your shoes?' And she said, 'I didn't want to wear them anymore.'"
The board previously asked Compton to compile a list of options, and estimates for a full or partial return of courtesy busing.
Compton said he has prepared six options, which he will present during the board's next workshop at 10 a.m. Feb. 18.
There are 486 registered sex offenders living within a 2 mile radius of Hernando County's elementary and middle schools, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The reduction of 19 routes from 158 to 139 resulted in an estimated savings of $54,000 per route, or more than $1 million per year for the district, according to School Superintendent Lori Romano.
Since the busing was eliminated, the school board unanimously approved nearly $250,000 in retroactive salary and benefit increases for several school and district-based administrative employees, partly out of the same general revenue fund as student transportation services. Increases in the transportation budget since courtesy busing was eliminated have been applied to raises for transportation employees this year, a 2 percent increase in their retirement and have been used to prevent decreases in health insurance benefits for three years.
The transportation department's pupil transportation budget increased by $823,648 this budget year, for a total of $15,134,693. The plant maintenance budget increased $580,864 for a total of $5,195,152.
The department's administrative technology budget also increased by $64,466, for a total of $1,914,295.