School district busing changes drive parents crazy
School District 51 busing changes drive parents crazy
More than 1,000 School District 51 students will wake up for the first day of classes Monday and learn what it’s like to not ride a bus to school.
The district eliminated 16 bus routes this year, each with an approximate average of 40 elementary school riders and 40 middle and high school riders, estimates District 51 Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan DeVita. Routes were eliminated based on the extension of busing boundaries by a mile. Elementary schools now bus students who would have a two-mile or longer walk to school. Middle and high school students will only have guaranteed busing if they have 3 or more miles to walk to school.
The change will save an anticipated $650,000 for the district, which cut $5.76 million from its 2012-13 budget to compensate for projected enrollment declines, state-mandated increases in district contributions to employee retirement benefits, maintenance of a capital projects budget and reinstatement of one year’s worth of pay increases or raises for all employees except Superintendent Steve Schultz.
Since the lines are drawn based on walking routes and not “as the crow flies,” the decision left some parents guessing whether their children were in or out of the new boundaries. School Board members had a first reading in June of the resolution that pushed back busing perimeters and the district spent most of the summer figuring out which routes to eliminate. It wasn’t until Aug. 6 that parents could type an address into a search engine on the district’s website and find out for sure if their children qualified for busing. Parents can appeal a decision to eliminate a bus route but there are no guarantees.
In the meantime, parents say they’re scrambling to put together car pools and coordinating when they can leave work to join the pick-up line at school. Others are planning walking routes that avoid the most obstacles, from railroad crossings to four-lane roads to sex offenders. A link on the city of Grand Junction’s website promises new walking boundaries and suggested walking route maps are “coming soon” but still listed old maps as of Friday.
SCRAMBLING TO ADAPT
Jay Nettleblad found out his 13-year-old son, Gage, would no longer have bus service to Mount Garfield Middle School when he registered for school Aug. 10. Faced with the choice of having his eighth-grader walk 2.6 miles to school, mostly along U.S. Highway 6 in the Palisade area, or take back roads for an even longer hike, Nettleblad said he decided to arrange a car pool with a neighbor. Because he has to be at work at 5 or 5:30 each morning and his wife gets to work even earlier, Nettleblad said he’ll take the afternoon pick-up shift in the car pool. But because he usually works 10-hour days, his son and neighbor will have to wait in the middle school’s library until 3:30 p.m. to catch their ride home, 50 minutes after the end of the school day.
Nettleblad said if the car pool ever falls through for a day he’s not willing to risk sending his son out to face bleary-eyed drivers speeding along the highway or back roads without sidewalks or lights.
“Worst case scenario (is) we have to call in an absence. I’d rather have him be absent than have an accident,” he said.
Rocky Mountain Elementary School was the only District 51 school last year without busing for all but special needs students, who are required by law to receive free busing to and from public schools. The new boundaries expand the number of schools without busing for all but special needs students to six, with Chatfield, Lincoln Orchard Mesa, Nisley, Orchard Avenue and Pear Park elementary schools joining the pack.
Kira Hudson’s daughters, Amia and Elliana, will be in fifth-grade and kindergarten, respectively, at Lincoln Orchard Mesa this year. Hudson, who also has 4-month-old Maddox and 3-year-old Benjamin, said she was looking forward to going back to school this year to become a dental hygienist and planned to drop off her daughters for school at 8:50 a.m. and 12:50 p.m., then have them take a bus home while she went to school. But with school a little less than two miles away, Hudson said she now plans to spend her days shuttling her kids. She lives off B 1/2 Road and doesn’t feel safe having her kids walk or bike in case they fall off a bike into traffic or get in a fight and stop paying attention to the road.
“I’m going to have to take night classes,” she said. “I think we were kind of hoping something would change over the summer but it hasn’t changed. Reality is setting in.”
Christine Gallagher’s fourth-grader, Gabriel, will be able to walk three blocks to elementary school, while her daughter, Rachel, a junior at Grand Junction High School, can drive herself to school. But her son, Noah, will start eighth-grade at Redlands Middle School without the bus trip he’s used to. With a 2.9 mile walk to school, Noah lives just inside the new walking perimeter but his parents will car pool with neighbors to get him to school. Gallagher said as a natural health care practitioner she’s concerned about students tasked with walking miles to school with a stuffed backpack and maybe a musical instrument.
“I grew up in South Dakota and walked six blocks to school in the winter, but I didn’t carry a backpack back then and it wasn’t three miles,” she said.
PAID BUSING REJECTED
The district decided to extend walking boundaries because it would eliminate full routes and save more on drivers, fuel and the district’s contract with bus-provider First Student, according to DeVita. Elimination of busing for all but special-needs students at the middle and high school level only gained support from 30 percent of respondents in a community survey posted online this spring by the school district and wouldn’t have saved as much money anyway, she said. Buses would still have to drive routes for elementary students so the same number of drivers would be needed, just for a few less hours. Bus drivers typically pick up secondary school students earliest in the morning, drop them off and swing back to pick up elementary students.
Although 64 percent of respondents to the same district survey were OK with extending walking distances for older students, 69 percent were against extending walking distances for elementary schools. Another 69 percent wanted the district to charge for transportation. But DeVita said the district had no way to hold parents accountable for paying those fees in full and on time, short of kicking students off a bus, which she said she’s not willing to do. Plus, she estimates it would cost $80 to $100 per month per bus-riding student for the district to pay for its full $4.95 million student transportation budget, which includes $4.88 million for fuel and the district’s contract with First Student.
About 9,800 District 51 students rode a school bus last year. With the new changes, the estimate at this point is that closer to 8,500 students will ride a bus in 2012-13. With that many students, it would take less per month to cover the $650,000 anticipated budget savings if all riders paid for busing.
“It doesn’t make sense to me this can’t be fixable,” Gallagher said. “The people I’ve talked to have been interested in paying, even paying some more for other kids. I think a lot of us felt very helpless because this decision was made without us.”
First Student will run an estimated 72 routes for elementary school students and 88 routes to middle and high schools, according to District 51 Director of Safety and Transportation Tim Leon. If there is room on one of those routes for a student from a nearby neighborhood in a non-busing area, the student can walk or get a ride to the bus stop and ride the bus to school for $10 a month.
Nettleblad said his son may have that option for a bus stop three-quarters of a mile away from home, but he was told the district won’t know for certain which routes have room for an extra rider until after Labor Day. Meanwhile, he said the bus will drive past his home anyway. Nettleblad said he wouldn’t pay more for his son to get to school on his old bus route than it would cost to get a taxi every day, but he wishes the school district had attempted to work out a pay-for-busing system with parents that would have covered budget cuts.
“Knowing the bus will still go by, I would like to see their budget and see what their costs really are. I’m not averse to paying at all,” he said.
SOME ROUTES COULD COME BACK
Part of the reason the district is unsure of its projected ridership or even how many routes it will end up having is because enrollment tends to fluctuate the first few weeks of school, according to Leon.
Leon said the district also is still considering whether or not to add some routes back in due to safety concerns. He said he’s relying on residents to be his eyes and ears in the community and alert him to hazards. Bus routes may be reinstated if students do not have an adequate shoulder or sidewalk to walk on, there are insufficient traffic lights or crossings on a route or bridges have a lack of fences and walkways, or walkers have to cross multiple hazards such as railroad tracks, highways and high-traffic roads.
“We’re keeping routes for Central High and Grand Mesa (Middle School) in the Pear Park area because they’d have to cross a railroad track and (the Interstate 70 Business Loop),” Leon offered as an example of an exception to the district’s new boundaries.
Between the two of them, Lori Banks and her husband, Bruce, wrote four letters to District 51 expressing concern for their daughter’s safety. The Banks found out in early August that Aubrey, a seventh-grader at Orchard Mesa Middle School, would have to walk about three miles to get to and from school. Although Lori Banks said she could drop her daughter off at school before work, Aubrey would have to walk home across U.S. Highway 50.
“Walking was not the issue with me, it was having to cross the highway,” Banks said.
The family received a letter last week that said their complaints about the safety of their daughter’s walking route led to the district re-instating a bus route for her neighborhood. But just three days ago, Banks said she got another letter from Leon saying district personnel examined the walking route and decided the area would not qualify for a bus route. Now it’s unclear what will happen with transportation in the neighborhood.
“It just seemed like the whole thing was not very well thought out. It wasn’t handled well at all,” Banks said, referring to all notification and decision-making surrounding bus changes.
The district and local law enforcement are partnering on public safety announcements in an effort to warn parents, drivers and students to be safe on the way to and from school. Mesa County sheriff’s deputy Chad Williams suggested parents plan safe routes for their children if they’ll be walking or biking to school and practice the routes with them before school starts.
“A lot of times you can find alternative routes that may run through a neighborhood and may keep them away from more heavily-trafficked roads,” Williams said.
Williams recommends kids limit horseplay on sidewalks and road shoulders, walk facing traffic and watch out for cars. Drivers should watch for students even farther away from schools than usual and plan for delays this week, he added.
Kate Porras, spokeswoman for the Grand Junction Police Department, said officers usually amplify their presence in school zones during the first week of school but they’ll also be out in force in new walking areas. Porras said the department isn’t expecting an increase in pedestrian versus car accidents, but she said parents should tell kids before they head out the door they “can’t cross whenever you want.”
Williams said he has gotten some calls from concerned parents, including a mother who learned her child’s most direct route to school included a sidewalk in front of a sex offender’s home.
“We encourage all parents to become familiar with that sex offender (web)site. They’ll probably find they’re (sex offenders) pretty much in most neighborhoods,” Williams said. “They can use those maps to find alternate routes and more times than not they can find a quick, short detour.”
ROUTES AREN’T ONLY CHANGE
Students inside the new busing boundaries may be counting themselves lucky this week, but they may have a little farther to walk as well.
Bus routes are adjusted each year to seek efficiencies. This year’s adjustments include having fewer bus stops placed farther apart. That means some spots will stay the same, while others will change to be closer to an intersection or not as spaced out in a single subdivision, Leon said.
“From a safety perspective, it’s better because as a driver it’s easier to see a large group of kids than two kids” at a bus stop, Leon said.
Leon said more kids in one place is also better for avoiding “stranger danger” and leads to buses holding up traffic less frequently because the bus has to make fewer stops.