School Board delays granting bus routes

Members worry that it's too easy to grant routes in dangerous areas to walk

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Juneau School Board has delayed granting bus routes in areas where it may be hazardous for students to walk.

The board, meeting Tuesday, asked the district administration to review the form it uses to decide whether a route is too unsafe for children walking to and from school. Board members are concerned that it's too easy to grant such a route.

Under the district's method, it would be hard for an elementary school not to be granted a hazardous route as long as it's anywhere near a car, School Board member Alan Schorr said.

But School Board member Andi Story said safety is paramount.

"And I can see why every elementary school would get a hazardous route on any form," she said.

Glacier Valley Elementary has asked the district to reinstate its two bus routes, which were canceled for next school year as part of a new money-saving policy. About 85 children use those buses. Riverbend Elementary also has asked for a bus route to be reinstated, district officials said. It wasn't clear how many children would be affected.

This school year the state changed the way it funds bus service, going from reimbursing actual costs to a grant based on enrollment. It resulted in less money for the district.

The district wanted to reduce busing costs $250,000 to $300,000 next school year so it wouldn't have to use instructional funds for transportation. The use of each bus costs about $50,000, about the same as the average cost of a teacher.

Because the district pays by the bus, it eliminated routes within a mile and half of schools, and further staggered the operating hours of some schools so fewer buses would be needed. The district planned to cut seven routes that serve 330 students. But the district also allowed schools to apply for an exemption based on the claim that a route within a mile and a half of a school is too unsafe for children to walk.

The district's form grants one point, five points or 10 points for each of 10 criteria, such as traffic volume and type, speed limits, walkways and lighting. The threshold for receiving a hazardous route is 45 points.

Board members were concerned that the method grants at least one point in a category even if the conditions are positive, such as good lighting. Board President Mary Becker also noted that the category "traffic volumes" appears twice on the form, allowing applicants to receive 20 points for the same situation.

The Glacier Valley routes received 46 points. The Riverbend route hasn't been analyzed yet.

"We still feel that, especially during the time from November through February, that it's not a safe route for young students to be walking because of weather and darkness and the amount of traffic pulling out of side streets in the Valley, " said Glacier Valley Principal Ted Wilson.

The requested Riverbend route includes Sharon Street, Emily Way and Killewich Drive, parents said. Without a bus route, parents would have to transport their children or let them walk along busy Riverside Drive, the location of the school.

The district's busing revision also changed the starting and ending times for Riverbend, setting the school day forward by 45 minutes. Working parents who used to drop off their kids by 8:30 a.m. said they wouldn't be able to do it at 9:15 a.m. They also weren't sure there would be space for their children in the district's before- and after-school RALLY day care program.

Parent Michelle Dombrowski told the board that her first-grader and fifth-grader would have to cross six streets to walk to school. In the winter it would be dark.

"I find this totally unacceptable," she said. The cost of RALLY for her two children would be $316 a month, "an unrealistic amount," she said.

Riverside Drive is heavily congested between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., Riverbend Principal Carmen Katasse said in an interview. Drivers' speed and the city doesn't always keep the sidewalks cleared of snow, she said.

"It's frightening to think of little kids walking along that street," Katasse said.

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