I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Changes in Walking Distance to School Rule --The New Red Hot Issue in The District

The School Board of Escambia County has recently had to make some excruciatingly difficult budget decisions due to a lack of funding for the 2008-2009 school year. The state legislature, due to a shrinking overall statewide budget, has placed local school districts in a position that these difficult choices have to be made.

In an effort to save hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Board recently voted to align our district’s school board transportation rules with current state guidelines and rules with respect to walking distances for students. Essentially, for years and years, the Escambia County School District has been going above and beyond what state law required-- offering courtesy transportation to students who live within 2 miles of their home schools. Due to unprecedented budget constraints, we have to eliminate this courtesy rider ship. The state does not fund local districts to pick up students who reside within two miles of their school, with exceptions for elementary students who walk in hazardous conditions, disabled students, and/or any other student who qualifies for transportation for special circumstances. Without being adequately funded by the state to offer these rides, we simply cannot continue the practice; we’re left with no choice but to eliminate courtesy rides, and the board recently voted unanimously to make this change. See the associated DOE rules and state statute at the below links:

I understand that this decision will be unpopular. I realize that this decision will result in a hardship for some working families, and I’m as concerned as everyone else about student safety. I have one elementary school child that rides the bus, and I drive my other two children to and from their middle school every day. I have made the choice as a parent to drive my children because of the distance to their school and other safety considerations. Under this new policy, each parent will have to weigh their own individual options and decide if they want their child to walk, or if they want to drive them, as do many parents already. This will be a personal choice for each family to make.

The savings achieved by reducing courtesy transportation is substantial; however I must point out that other measures could have been taken to realize similar savings. I have recently actively lobbied the board and superintendent to cut 9-10 administrative positions (Savings would have been $700,000.00+) and I was beat down for it. I suggested that all district employees make a modest and temporary wage concession of between 2-4% to offset our tremendous budget shortage (Savings would have been in the millions of dollars) and I was laughed out of the room. I suggested that we close underutilized facilities, like Carver/Century K-8 (savings $600,000.00) and I’ve been told we cannot do that, and I’ve been beat up for that suggestion ever since I made it.

So we come to a decision to align our own district rules with state policy, in order to save hundreds of thousands of dollars, and everyone agreed that we had no choice but to do it. Very few parents (if any) came to that meeting to voice an opinion or to protest this change. But now that people are starting to realize that it may affect their own children, my phone has been ringing off the hook.

I have talked to no fewer than fifteen parents over the last several days on this issue. I have received numerous emails as well. My message to these parents and grandparents has been that I can empathize with them; however their consternation must rightly be focused and channeled to those in Tallahassee who make the laws. I’ve told those I have spoken with to speak out, attend meetings, and if change is necessary—to contact their local state representatives and state senators, who make the laws that we all live under. The days of local control of local schools is over, and it is a shame. Local districts should be able to control their own policies, but the power is being slowly and methodically drained by state and federal bureaucrats who want no less than total control. So, I tell everyone the same thing---- If student walking distance is the issue that is burning you up, tell your district’s state representatives and senator to:

1. Adequately fund the local school districts to pick up students who live within the two mile radius of their schools.
2. Change the law to apply the unsafe walking conditions exemption to not only elementary school children, but also to middle school students. Tell them you are concerned about pedestrian/automobile collisions, inclement weather, and sexual predators.
3. Quit forcing mandates down the throats of local school boards, without adequately funding them.

Nothing changes unless people speak up and let their voices be heard. Apathy among the local population has to end, and people must begin to become actively involved with their local, state, and federal policymakers. Otherwise, you are (by proxy) telling government politicians you agree that they.. “Know what’s best for you”.

My advice—get involved in the process, be proactive and not reactive.


Anonymous said...

i wish i were in a poistion to transport my child to and from school. unfortunately, i'm a single parent, and my job would not tolerate that.i wonder how may children will have to be hit, become ill from rainy and cold weather, become missing, or assaulted my asexaul predator before anyone realizes what an awful mistake our school district has made?

Jeff Bergosh said...

As I have stated in the post, I can empathize with parents on this issue. However, it does not change the fact that the state does not fund the district to provide transportation to students who live within 2 miles of their school. Given our tremendous budget constraints this year, we are forced to look for every efficiency we can find. Parents will need to assess the risks for themselves and arrange for appropriate transportation, car pooling, etc. for their children if these parents feel that walking will be unsafe.