BROOKSVILLE – What Jennifer Pontrelli has experienced in picking up and dropping off her children since school began prompted her to start doing research and making some phone calls.
“They took my bus away, and that’s what got me looking up statutes,” Pontrelli said, whose children attend J.D. Floyd and Challenger K8. “At J.D. Floyd all those kids are walking.
“Those kids are in danger walking up Mariner every day, and Landover is a big problem, and the more (the district) won’t call me back I start looking into it.”
School Superintendent Lori Romano wrote in a statement that, like many school districts in Florida, the reality of the recent economic climate has forced Hernando County to look closely at all budget impactors and make some tough choices.
“This includes the decision last year to eliminate courtesy busing for students living within two miles of their zoned school,” Romano wrote. “That change required students who were within that limit and used to catching a bus to now walk their way to school.”
According to state law, school districts across the state won’t receive annual student transportation funding from the Florida Department of Education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade unless they live 2 miles or more from school – hence “courtesy” busing.
As a result of its removal, the Hernando County Schools Transportation Department reduced its number of routes from 158 to 139, with an estimated savings of $54,000 per route.
That translates into a savings of more than $1 million for the district, according to Romano.
“Reduced busing has required an adjustment on the part of parents and students, as well as others in the community,” Romano wrote. “While the first few weeks of school are a time when we all settle into new schedules, we as a district really haven’t experienced any areas of major concern.”
Residents in areas by Explorer K8 are not pleased, and Pontrelli and other parents say they have safety and fairness concerns about the district’s busing decision.
Brian Brijbag is a single father of three children and his youngest has special needs.
He works full-time and is also completing a master’s degree.
During the first week of school he wrote a letter to county commissioners, inviting them to join him for a ride-along to see what the traffic situation is like.
“Having dropped off and picked up my children at JD Floyd for the last several years, I have not seen the traffic situation worse than it has been this year due to the ordinance,” Brijbag wrote, referencing the ordinance that prohibits stopping, standing or parking within 750 feet of schools. “Not only has the situation been made worse for all involved, not meeting the needs of parents or Floyd’s neighbors, but now parents operate under the threat by law enforcement of fines for simply trying to pick up my child.”
“I cannot afford being fined for picking my child up from school,” he added.
Although traffic volume is the determining safety factor specified in Florida law allowing exceptions to the 2-mile busing rule, parents have expressed other safety concerns within that 2 miles, especially in more concentrated areas like Spring Hill and some parts of Brooksville.
There are a combined 486 sex offenders registered as living within a 2 mile radius of Hernando County’s elementary and middle schools, for instance, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Moton Elementary has the highest concentration of sex offenders within 2 miles of the school at 79, Deltona Elementary has 73, Explorer K8 has 48, Brooksville Elementary has 46, Westside Elementary has 37, Fox Chapel Middle has 32 and Chocachatti, Spring Hill Elementary and Challenger K8 have 28 each.
J.D. Floyd has 23 registered offenders within 2 miles from the school.
“I demand a bus stop with safe passage for my children. It’s all in your right as a parent and a taxpayer in the county,” Pontrelli said. “They’re all sending (costs) to the parents, and it’s just not feasible.
“It’s not OK to expect the county to pick up the tab for them, and to the parents who pick up their kid from their own school.”
Pontrelli also said she is aggravated that courtesy busing was eliminated for students within a 2-mile radius of their schools, but students drawn from lottery to attend schools outside their designated area still receive transportation.
“It should be fair across the board,” she said. “I thought by now they would have just given the buses back, but they won’t, and they’re not answering.”
Calls and messages made to Transportation Director Doug Compton and Media Relations Specialist Roy Gordon in the last 10 days were not returned.
Romano wrote that the safety of Hernando County school children is an issue of paramount concern, and that the district will continue to be vigilant in ensuring the safety and security of all students.
“That holds true not only when they are on campus but also as they travel to and from home,” she wrote.
Florida statutes show that the transportation needs of elementary school students in grade six and younger, if subjected to hazardous walking conditions to or from school, should be accommodated for less than one year until such hazardous conditions are corrected within a reasonable time.
The state considers a hazardous walking condition any road along which students must walk in order to get to and from school where there is not an area at least 4 feet wide adjacent to the road for students to walk.
If beside a non-curbed road with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour, the sidewalk needs to be placed at least 3 feet from the road.
However, this excludes roads in residential areas with speed limits 30 miles per hour or less, has little or no transient traffic, and has less than 180 traveling cars per hour per direction during times students walk to and from school.