Parents challenge school-bus decision

Worries center on winter darkness, snow berms on sidewalks

Posted: Monday, May 30, 2005

It was a lovely spring morning for the children from Glacier View Mobile Home Park walking to school last week.

Flowers bloomed along Riverside Drive on the way to Mendenhall River Elementary School. Students dashed in and out of the ditch and parried with stick swords they found in the bushes.

"I like walking to school," said Jawan Mays, a second-grader at Mendenhall River Community School. "I get sticks."

It's a different story for some parents, who say the 1.5-mile trip can be treacherous. They especially worry about winter, when the sun sets early and the sidewalks are covered with snow berms. Some streets don't have sidewalks, so children have to walk on the bike lanes or curbs.

Four parents have appealed the Juneau School District's decision to eliminate five school bus routes to three elementary schools in Mendenhall Valley - Riverbend, Glacier Valley and Mendenhall River.

Dissatisfied with Superintendent Peggy Cowan's response, the parents said they will appeal to the School Board. They expect the board to hear their appeal as early as next week.

"The superintendent says if there is too much snow, she will just call it a snow day," said Celeste DeRego, one of the parents who appealed the district's decision. "That will affect not only the children who walk to school but all the students. Who is going to look after them if their parents have to work?"

Last summer, the district informed the parents at the three schools that it would no longer pick up their children if they live within 1.5 miles.

The district had to cancel the routes because the state changed its funding formula. Instead of reimbursing the district for each student, the state gave the district a lump sum and the district has to pick up extra costs, said Gary Epperson, district business manager.

Epperson estimates eliminating the five bus routes would affect about 250 students.

The parents' fears prompted the School Board to retain the bus routes through the school year now ending. The School Board also instructed the district to conduct a study throughout the winter to determine whether the routes are as hazardous as the parents alleged.

The district conducted a study in March and concluded that the routes are not hazardous.

But some parents said the district failed to do the study properly.

"They were supposed to do the study throughout the winter. They only did it once in March," said Kris Coffee, who has a third-grade daughter at Mendenhall River. Her other daughter will attend kindergarten next year.

"The School District doesn't operate in good faith," Coffee said.

DeRego said Epperson should have walked the routes with the students instead of driving. Epperson said he doesn't think walking would make a difference.

On the walk to Mendenhall River Elementary, fifth-grader MaKenzie DeRego said to watch out at the intersection of Taku Boulevard and Riverside Drive because the bushes block the drivers' view. Kassandra Eyre, a fifth-grader, said drivers don't always slow down for students. Carriah Childress, a fourth-grader, said not all of her classmates have boots to keep their feet warm and dry on rainy or snowy days.

Younger children lagged behind on the walk last week, checking out insects or garbage cans.

MaKenzie DeRego said she doesn't like walking to school.

"When I get there, my feet hurt," DeRego said. "It's not fun to go through the day with sore feet."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.



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