Every school year, local news pieces across the state of Florida describe parent concerns about the elimination of school bus stops, walking routes to school that force children to cross busy roadways, and children being forced to walk to school on roads that lack sidewalks. The angst is directed at school districts for decisions that are made in keeping with state law.
For instance, as the 2019-20 school year began, WCTV in Tallahassee reported that as the Leon County School District began its school year, it had to deal with parent complaints that included “…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 existed within two miles of school. Chris Petley, school district spokesperson, told WCTV that “There used to be some stops; we had 1,100 of these stops in the past, and they’re all unfunded by the state of Florida.”
Actually, the term “courtesy” riders is outdated. The term for these students today is “ineligible” bus riders because the state’s criteria doesn’t qualify them for funded school bus transportation service. They’re ineligible because 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 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 10 seconds) to be hazardous for students, students who cross four lanes of traffic and walk on the road are ineligible for funded transportation service unless the traffic reaches that extraordinary volume.
The statute 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 transportation of “courtesy riders” who are not eligible for funded transportation service.
It amounts to a lot of money. Statewide, school districts reported transporting more than 90,000 ineligible students during the 2018-19 school year at an operating cost of nearly $67 million per year. Leon County reported transporting 1,446 ineligible students during the 2018-19 school year at a cost to the school district of nearly $1.4 million.
So, where school districts believe walking conditions are hazardous for students but the conditions don’t satisfy the statute’s unrealistic definition of a hazardous walking condition, the statute essentially forces districts to choose between putting those funds into the classroom or eating the cost of transporting those students so they arrive to school safely.
It’s time to overhaul Florida’s hazardous walking conditions statute for the sake of the safety of our children, and for the sake of our school districts’ ability to put money into their classrooms and transport students around hazardous walking conditions as they determine is most appropriate within the limits of the law.