Parents unite to demand shorter student bus rides
Lee County School District’s transportation system is likely to be a hot issue in the new year.
Parents first began voicing their concerns to the school board this fall over long bus rides stemming from the school choice program. Although the reaction from a majority of the board members and Superintendent James Browder is that a systemic problem doesn’t exist, more parents are mobilizing to continue their campaign to eliminate these long rides.
Don Armstrong, a parent from Lehigh Acres, has organized local parents from Cape Coral, Fort Myers and other parts of the county into a Facebook account where they air their grievances and agree to meet at the next school board meeting.
Ninety-five people have joined the Facebook group since its inception. And he’s also been contacted by other parents who don’t have internet access or a Facebook account.
“It’s to let people know the time and place of the next meeting and get as many parents as I can to show up to it,” said Armstrong.
Besides emailing Governor Charlie Crist with his concerns, Armstrong is also trying to get as many concerned parents as possible to attend the board’s Jan. 12 meeting. He said some board members were wanting to “bury their heads in the sand.”
Both of his children are 5 and will start school in Lee County next year, he said, and he wants the issue resolved before they begin kindergarten.
“I’ve got two 5-year-olds and I’m lucky if I can get them to sit down and do their homework for 10 minutes, much less sit down on a bus and be good for two hours,” he said.
The board hasn’t discussed whether they’re going to consider altering the choice program, but Armstrong and other parents said they aren’t giving up.
Transportation cost $46.2 million this academic year, according to the 2009-2010 budget.
The district’s choice program breaks the county into three zones and further into three sub-zones. Students have an option of attending a school in their sub-zone, an adjacent sub-zone or a magnet school located in another zone.
Browder and school board members replied to parents last month that long bus rides have never been concealed and are simply a by-product of the choice program. They also said a very small number of students have long rides because they chose schools farther away from home.
During the school board’s organizational meeting, the superintendent committed to holding an audit of the district’s transportation system.
“A five hour bus ride for a 5-year-old is absolute insanity,” said Board Member Robert Chilmonik. “You can’t conduct a quality education system with children sitting on buses that long.”
Chilmonik, who is urging the district to return to a neighborhood schools model, said even one child riding a bus for that long is unacceptable.
He said the choice system is forcing some students into long rides because the school closest to their home is filled to capacity.
“We need to look at going back to a neighborhood school system,” he said. “We can’t afford the luxury of a system like we have now. Neighborhood schools build neighborhoods and that is something Lee County certainly needs.”
Transportation may very well become a hot topic for this year’s primary — as it was in the 2002 election — as three school board member seats come up for reelection. Seats currently held by Board Members Elinor Scricca, Bob Chilmonik and Steve Teuber are up for election this year.