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School board member examines district bus stops

By Staff | Nov 20, 2009

Although denied admittance onto a school bus, Lee County School Board Member Robert Chilmonik spent Thursday studying bus stops in Cape Coral with a news team from FOX 4.
During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Chilmonik agreed to ride a district bus to discover whether some students were on a bus for as long as four hours each day.
Two major points of contention among the school board was whether advance notice would be provided to the bus drivers and whether board members could ride the same bus without violating Florida Sunshine Laws.
Chilmonik said at the meeting that he would discuss the issue with Superintendent James Browder, but on Thursday he was not allowed on the bus.
“I would like to get to the bottom of what is going on during the bus ride,” Chilmonik said. “But I’m not going to force my way on (the bus).”
After touring some bus stops in the northwest Cape, Chilmonik said many elementary students are waiting for the bus in pitch dark areas without sidewalks.
He added that students sit on the bus for two hours to go from the city’s northern boundaries to elementary schools in the south.
“We were in the northwest Cape taking kids all the way to Cape Elementary,” he said. “It went to 25 stops and two hours on the bus for those little kids.”
Chilmonik, who continues to advocate for a return to a neighborhood schools model, said the students could easily attend Diplomat Elementary, Patriot Elementary or Skyline Elementary, rather than take a ride to the south Cape.
Chairman Steve Teuber said he received an invitation during the recent Pride and Patriotism Concert at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall to ride a bus, but he was not given an explanation as to why.
“I have no problem riding a bus,” he said. “I wasn’t about to ride in some bus and make FOX 4 their news for them.”
Teuber added that no one, including a school board member, is allowed to ride a bus without permission from the superintendent.
He said no permission was granted to Chilmonik or the news crew and the transportation schedule was disrupted as a result of the project.
Before Browder’s assignment to the district in 2003, the busing system was in disorder after an elimination of schedules resulted in students arriving late to school. According to Chilmonik, these issues were a contributing factor to a shifting of board members in the 2002 election.
Lee County employs a school choice system where students can choose schools in their subzone or an adjacent subzone. Students who want to attend magnet schools or academies in other parts of the county are bused under school choice.
According to Browder, 72 percent of district parents have chosen a school that is not near their home and the district has never tried to conceal long bus rides.
Teuber claimed that most of the parents complaining about two-hour bus rides did not choose schools closest to their home.
“Did you pick the school closest to you? Has anyone complained about busing?” he asked. “I have had zero e-mails about busing.”
Returning to a neighborhood schools model would reduce some of the district’s transportation expenditures, Chilmonik said.
Transportation expenses for students in the 2009-10 school year are $46 million, according to official budget figures, an increase of 2.41 percent from the prior year.
The transportation department is also at the mercy of rapidly increasing gas prices since it uses approximately 600 buses each year.
The school choice system is the result of a 1964 lawsuit where a federal district court found Lee County was operating a racially segregated system. By 1999 the district settled with the plaintiff and the school choice system was kept.