Student Ridership Purges Hint at a Desperate Need for a Change in the Hazardous Walking Conditions Statute

We’ve previously noted that over the past 10 years, Florida school districts have reported transporting 11,000 fewer students around hazardous walking conditions while the number of “ineligible” students that they’re transporting without a state funding contribution has increased by 12,000 students over that period. We’ve suspected that a number of the ineligible students that they’re transporting are being transported because although they actually do encounter hazardous walking conditions while walking to and from school, they don’t satisfy the state’s hazardous walking conditions criteria or the school district transportation offices have determined that the process of claiming the hazardous ridership is too cumbersome and difficult to follow. But school districts have transported them anyway because it would be dangerous not to. We’ve said that their intervention has most certainly saved lives.

We’ve also reported that the problem with ineligible student ridership is becoming more and more of a challenge for school districts because it means that every bit of the cost of transporting those students is borne by local school districts, paid for by local tax dollars, normally local property tax dollars. This is money that district school boards might otherwise prefer to channel to the classroom. The ineligible ridership problem has become such an issue that for the 2017-18 school year, Florida school districts reported that they transported more than 90,000 students who were ineligible for a state funding contribution at a cost to local school districts of more than $92 million statewide. Of course, not all of those students were transported because of hazardous walking conditions, but many were.

We have predicted that as school districts feel increasing pressure to find funds within their budgets to pay for their education initiatives to improve school and student performance, they might turn to the unfunded transportation service for relief but that since some of that transportation service is dedicated to safeguarding students from hazardous walking conditions, there could be a local backlash and even the potential for tragedy involving students who are struck by vehicles as they walk to or from school if this service is not streamlined carefully.

The fact that the National Complete Streets Coalition has placed Florida at the top of the list as the nation’s most dangerous state for pedestrians and the fact that the nation’s 6 most dangerous metropolitan areas for pedestrians – and 8 of the top 10 – are in Florida lends credence to that concern. It certainly doesn’t make sense then that over the past 5 years, Florida school districts have reported transporting some 14,000 FEWER students around hazardous walking conditions.

As the Fall school term begins across the state of Florida, parents are beginning to resist changes that school districts have made to their ridership rolls because they’re concerned that the changes are leaving their children vulnerable to genuine hazardous conditions within a reasonable walking distance of school. Meanwhile, school districts are sometimes simply referring parents to the Florida statutes governing hazardous walking conditions, section 1006.23, but that approach has not been very persuasive. Why is it not persuasive? Because the statute doesn’t pass the “reasonable person test” and parents aren’t willing to relieve school districts of the responsibility – as the local educational entity – of providing their children reasonably safe access to education. The hazardous walking conditions statute doesn’t do that, so they don’t accept that as the answer.

As we’ve previously reported, a hazardous walking conditions criteria that doesn’t find an intersection that has a stop light or stop sign hazardous unless it has a traffic volume of at least 4,000 vehicles per hour – a total of more than 1 vehicle per second – isn’t reasonable. Parents know that. They also know that the statute’s criteria that doesn’t find a crossing site that doesn’t include a stop light or stop sign hazardous unless it has a traffic volume of at least 360 vehicles per hour in each direction – a total of 1 vehicle every 5 seconds – isn’t reasonable either. Likewise, parents don’t accept the fact that the statute’s criteria that says that children don’t need a safe and stable walking surface off of the roadway unless the traffic volume is at least 180 vehicles per hour in each direction – a total of 1 vehicle every 10 seconds – is the end of the discussion either.

At some level, parents recognize that in a state and country that mandates the provision of public education, there should be reasonably safe access to that education and when children live within a reasonable walking distance of school, they should be able to walk safely to and from school or be considered eligible for school bus transportation service. Parents believe that it isn’t enough for school district transportation offices to merely refer parents to the hazardous walking conditions statute as if that answers parent concerns…because it doesn’t answer their concerns.

Florida school districts desperately need to see a dramatic improvement to the hazardous walking conditions statute so they can have the option to provide transportation service with a partial state funding contribution for endangered students before they make decisions to purge ridership rolls of students who will be left on their own if they don’t. If they don’t get that improvement, we fear that this emerging concern will rapidly devolve to tragedy.

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