Conversations had already been happening between Pasco County Schools and Pasco County government about the need for the county to build more sidewalks — but school board members want to ratchet up the urgency level.
They agreed during their Aug. 30 meeting to send a letter to the Pasco County Commission asking that sidewalks to be made a priority.
The issue has become more pressing because the school district has dropped “courtesy” bus rides this year for sixth- through 12th-graders who live within 2 miles of school.
Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning said the district was forced to take that action because of a shortage of bus drivers and increasing enrollment.
Last year, the district changed its school start and end times, in a shift aimed at getting students to school and home on time.
Browning characterized that as “an extreme step” but said he hoped it would result in students arriving to school and at home on time.
It helped, but did not solve the problem, he said.
“The second initiative we put in place was the elimination of courtesy ridership for secondary schools for this school year.
“This, too, was an extreme step to take, but one that was necessary,” Browning said.
He said he’s received emails from parents who are asking that empty seats on buses be filed by courtesy riders.
But the superintendent said exceptions cannot be made because that would lead to inequities in the district.
He also told the board that district buses are more filled than ever before.
“We’ve eliminated (more than) 100 routes from the beginning of last year, despite the growth that this district has seen. We continue to combine routes this school year to adjust to the numbers of students that we’re required to transport, and we do not have enough drivers to get this work done today.
“At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, we had 436 bus routes. Today, we have 333 bus routes. We’ve grown by approximately 6,000 students in that time,” Browning said.
Parents have raised safety concerns about their children having to walk to school on streets without sidewalks or lighting.
But Browning is holding firm: “The elimination of courtesy riders for secondary schools will remain in effect.”
Even with the steps the districts has taken, there are still late buses, Browning said.
He attributes that to the district’s 57 driver vacancies.
“I think it goes without saying that our transportation staff is working many, many hours, addressing the issues of parents and students,” Browning said.
School board member Megan Harding said she wants to know how many seats on the bus are vacant.
“I would like some kind of count. We make our decisions based on data, so I think I have the right to have some of that data.
“I believe there are empty seats. You talk about equity and you talk about fairness. It’s not fair if we have empty seats on the bus and we have kids that are walking an hour in the dark to school,” Harding said.
Browning told her the district has rosters of students assigned to buses, but doesn’t keep a running count of how many seats are occupied.
School board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong noted that parents of students who qualify sign up their children for buses and are entitled to that bus service, whether they use it or not.
In some cases, parents transport their children on most days of the week, but occasionally use the bus, when they’re not able to take the child to school.
Harding said she understands the district is in a crisis, relating to the bus driver shortages, but she added, at the same time: “I do have families reaching out to me, still daily, about their children waiting an hour at their bus stop because the bus is late.”
She said she’s personally written the Pasco County Commission, but asked if the board would support sending a letter, too, which it did.
“I feel that they’re dragging their feet and it’s a huge safety issue,” Harding said.
Deputy Superintendent Ray Gadd said, “I think in the coming months, we’re going to have some commission members who are going to take up the charge for us on sidewalks.
“I think they’re sympathetic toward our cause.”
Meanwhile, Armstrong suggested parents may want to consider the old-school approach of carpooling.
With the availability of today’s social media tools, it might be easier to organize a carpool than it was in the past, Armstrong noted.
Published September 07, 2022