Leon County Dealing with the Rock and the Hard Place

WCTV in Tallahassee is reporting that as the Leon County School District begins its school year, it is dealing with parent complaints that include “…the removal of some bus stops. Some parents are worried about routes that seem to have children crossing four lane highways, walking almost three miles and walking on roads that do not have sidewalks.”

In explaining the school district’s decision to eliminate some “courtesy” bus stops that exist within two miles of school. Chris Petley, school district spokesperson, told WCTV that “There used to be some stops; we had 1100 of these stops in the past, and they’re all unfunded by the state of Florida.”

The crisis that Florida school districts are facing with these “courtesy” bus stops is, as Mr. Petley described, brought on by the fact that the students who are served by those bus stops are ineligible for a state funding contribution. They’re ineligible because eligibility for student transportation service isn’t provided for students who live within 2 miles of school unless they’re elementary school students who are exposed to hazardous walking conditions as defined by section 1006.23 of the Florida statutes. It’s that statute that has put Leon County and many other school districts between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Since the Florida hazardous walking conditions statute doesn’t consider crossing four lanes of traffic at controlled intersections that have less than 4,000 vehicles per hour passing through them (more than 1 vehicle every second) and walking on roads that have a traffic volume of less than 180 vehicles per hour in each direction (a total of 1 vehicle every 5 seconds) to be hazardous for students, Leon County students who cross four lanes of traffic and walk on the road may very well be considered ineligible for funded transportation service because those conditions aren’t necessarily considered hazardous by the state.

The statute that contains that criteria has put Florida school districts in a difficult position because when they find themselves in a crunch for funds for classroom education, they begin to look for dollars elsewhere, including the unfunded transportation of students whom the state of Florida says are ineligible for transportation service.

It amounts to a lot of money. Statewide, school districts reported transporting more than 90,000 ineligible students during the 2017-18 school year at a cost of some $92 million per year although not all of them were transported around hazardous walking conditions. Leon County reported transporting 1,438 ineligible students during the 2017-18 school year at a cost to the school district of more than $1.5 million.

So, to some extent, the statute has forced Florida school districts to choose between putting those funds into the classroom or into ensuring that their students arrive at school safely. That choice might sound like a no-brainer, but the statute’s language makes it difficult for school districts to transport those students. In fact, the language that, oddly, is embedded in the Education Code, practically encourages school districts not to transport them.

That’s why school districts and parents should strongly support our proposal to amend and improve the hazardous walking conditions statute. Our proposal provides school districts with a funding contribution when they choose to transport students who live within a reasonable walking distance of school and encounter real hazardous walking conditions. It vastly improves the hazardous walking conditions criteria and relieves the pressure that school districts face when deciding between putting money in the classroom or transporting students around dangerous conditions that the state of Florida currently says are not hazardous for students.

It’s time to adopt this improvement for the sake of our school districts’ ability to put money into their classrooms and transport students around hazardous walking conditions as they see fit, and for the sake of the safety of our children.

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