In December, the Hillsborough County School Board voted to end what they call “courtesy busing” for middle and high school students who live within two miles of their respective schools.
In New Tampa, this will affect nearly 500 students, mostly at Louis Benito Middle School and Paul R. Wharton High School, where more than 400 students will no longer have bus transportation provided (see chart). At other New Tampa schools combined, including Freedom High, Liberty Middle, and Tuner/Bartels K-8, another 50 students are affected.
According to records made available by the School Board, Benito currently provides bus transportation to 629 of the 1,058 students who attend school there. Of those students, 265 will not have bus transportation starting with the 2017-18 school year, because they live within two miles of the school.
“Courtesy busing was not supposed to be a permanent thing,” explains school district spokesperson Tanya Arja. “It was designed for temporary uses, such as road hazards during construction, and there should have been a process to remove it when those factors were gone.”
She explains that the majority of students throughout Hillsborough County are responsible for their own transportation to and from school, saying that of 214,000 students countywide, only 90,000 are bused.
Arja also says the decision was made in December to give parents plenty of time to plan for next school year, such as by arranging carpools or their work schedules.
For some local parents, the decision is upsetting. Lisa Evison, who lives in Cross Creek, is trying to rally parents to object to the decision, as other communities — such as Lutz and FishHawk Ranch in south Hillsborough County — have done.
Evison says with the never ending traffic, potential child predators and other dangers, she doesn’t feel that it’s safe for her seventh grade son, Alex, to walk to Benito from her neighborhood in Cross Creek, nearly two miles away. “The Tampa Bay area as a whole has a horrendous — and deserved — reputation for pedestrian fatalities,” she says. “How many kids have to die walking to school before we say it’s enough?”
Statistics compiled by the Tampa Bay Times show that in 2016, there were 39 pedestrian fatalities in Hillsborough County, and another 12 bicycle fatalities. This is down from a record year in 2015, where there were a combined 59 fatalities.
In 2012, Evison says she was riding a bike in front of Benito and a car made a right turn on red and hit her.
“I’m an adult, I have a light on my bike, and he drove over me and didn’t see me. People are distracted, in a rush, and not paying attention. I see it all the time! I don’t know why I would expose my children to that — never mind the long walk with his 22-pound backpack.”
The principals at both Benito and Wharton say it remains to be seen exactly what the impact on schools will be.
“We already have families who have busing available to them who don’t take advantage of it because they would rather drop their kid off at 7:00 than have them catch the bus at 6:30,” says Wharton principal Brad Woods. He says he’s in close contact with the county transportation department to closely monitor the construction on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd., as the road is being expanded from four to six lanes.
“If Bruce B. Downs meets the state statutes for hazardous road conditions, they would have to put the transportation back,” he says.
Meanwhile, Benito principal John Sanders says the school is preparing for an increase in the number of students walking and biking to school.
“My primary concern is the intersection of Kinnan St. and Cross Creek Blvd.,” says Sanders. “We’ll do everything we can to make that intersection safer for our families. We’ve requested a crossing guard, we will ask our school resource officer to be at that intersection and we will educate our kids to cross the road safely.”
Affected students recently received a letter from the school board explaining the cuts and providing a “Parent/Guardian Hazardous Walking Concern Review Request” for any parent who feels that the walking path for their child is unsafe.
Arja says community meetings will be planned to help connect parents to resources for carpooling and safe walking and biking, including HART, TBARTA, Safe Routes to School, and St. Joseph’s Hospital. Woods says one such meeting is expected to be held at Wharton, but no date had been set at our press time.
Evison also has a child at Hunter’s Green Elementary and is concerned about the future, as the School Board is expected to cut courtesy busing to elementary schools for the following school year, 2018-19.
Evison says parents who want to ask the Board to reconsider their decision should join a Facebook group started by FishHawk-area parents called “Safe Bus For Us.” Evison was part of a group of parents who attended the last school board meeting to express their concerns about ending the program.
Additional information from Hillsborough County Public Schools can be found online at SDHC.k12.fl.us/doc/1787/courtesybusinformation.