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Saturday, Jul 22, 2017
Local News

Hillsborough commissioners wash hands of School Board's bus cuts

TAMPA — Hillsborough County sent a message Tuesday to parents concerned about the school district's decision to end some busing services in August:

We had nothing to do with this, and there's not much we can do to fix it.

The Hillsborough County School Board voted in December to end so-called "courtesy busing," meaning free bus service for middle and high school students who live within 2 miles of their school.

Since then, commissioners said their offices have been inundated with calls to step in to save the program or provide alternatives, like building more sidewalks between neighborhoods and schools.

Hillsborough County has $600 million set aside for transportation projects over the next decade, but county Administrator Mike Merrill told commissioners Tuesday that the county already has its own transportation needs to tackle with that money. Anyway, adding a few sidewalks won't make a difference for parents, he said.

"I'm not sure parents would want their kids walking 2 miles in the dark this time of year," Merrill said. "I'm not sure sidewalks are the solution."

In the short-term, he said the School Board should look to fill the funding gap with other sources, like grants from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, or seek out a private solution.

Long-term, county commissioners can consider changes to school impact fees they impose on new construction, he said. Currently, those fees can be used on capital expenditures but not the school district's operational costs, like running buses.

Commissioners voted 7-0 to conduct a review of school impact fees to see if they need to be updated.

The county also wants better communication from the district as it builds new schools, to avoid logistical problems with school-day arrivals and departures as Hillsborough grows. A joint task force was suggested.

"The reality is we cannot solve every problem from other jurisdictions. The school siting issue has been a concern for at least a decade," said Commissioner Ken Hagan "I'm not going to support reprioritizing our transportation (project) list because the School Board cannot balance its budget without making these cuts."

Cindy Stuart, chair of the School Board and member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said county staffers sit on the organization's school transportation work group and "have been discussing (school) siting and circumstances around the schools for the past nine months."

To save money, the Hillsborough County School District is phasing out courtesy busing — the practice of providing rides to students who live within two miles of their schools. As many as 7,500 middle and high school students will be affected when the 2017-18 school year begins. Elementary school busing will be cut a year later.

The reductions are expected to save $4.5 million. The plan's critics say it's better to continue the service in the interest of safety.

Maintaining the status quo would mean continuing a practice that doesn't treat all neighborhoods equally. The Tampa Bay Times found that of the 12,000 students who received courtesy busing last year, 13 percent lived in two affluent neighborhoods: FishHawk Ranch, where parents have mobilized against the new arrangement, and Westchase.

By contrast, there are urban schools — including Mort Elementary, where most students must cross busy Bearss Avenue to get to school — with virtually no busing at all.

District leaders say the disparities reflect decades in which bus stops were added because of temporary problems, such as construction projects, but never deleted from the list.

"We have nine months to work on this. Time is going to go very fast," said Commissioner Stacy White, a former School Board member who represents east Hillsborough. "I know there are limited options for us, but I would like to see us engage immediately."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Contact Marlene Sokol at msokol@tampabay.com.

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