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School district discounts ride-length complaint numbers

By Staff | Jan 14, 2010

District officials responded to complaints of long school bus rides Tuesday after studying e-mails given to them by a media outlet reporting parent concerns.
Many of the complaints provided by FOX 4 came from parents living in Cape Coral who allege their children are on the bus for a total of four hours each day. Lee County parent Don Armstrong subsequently created a Facebook page devoted to organizing other parents experiencing similar issues.
Officials spent the holiday break studying the e-mails forwarded to them and cross-referenced the families with the length of bus rides and whether the parents chose that school as their first choice.
Superintendent James Browder said he examined 110 e-mails sent to the local television station and found that only 12 specifically discussed long rides. He added that eight of those e-mails were sent by parents who received their first choice in school assignment and three others — who moved to Lee County after the school year began –refused their first choice in the 20-day window.
He said the rest of the messages were related to other district operations and concerns over such things as overcrowding.
“One of the things we’re doing is operating a very efficient system,” said Browder. “It is no secret that some of our bus rides are longer than others.”
The Lee County School District transports students on 1,238 buses — 50 less than the 2008-2009 school year due to budget cuts — and Browder said 152 routes are over 90 minutes. And he stated that only seven routes are two hours and two minutes.
Alleged busing issues have brought out other public officials to comment on the issue that some students are on the bus for two hours each way. Fort Myers City Councilman Tom Leonardo addressed the school board as a private citizen.
“With five grandchildren, I wouldn’t like to see any of them on the school bus for more than one hour,” he said. ” If only one student has a ride greater than 90 minutes, that is one student too many.”
Armstrong also discussed with school board members some research he conducted on the issue. Transportation will consume $48 million this year, according to the district’s 2009-2010 budget, and as gas prices increase so does the amount Lee County is forced to pay.
“School choice is a clear problem, the problem is that we have spent too much money on these buses,” said Armstrong.
Opponents of Lee County’s student assignment program say that the district should return to a “neighborhood schools” model where students go to a school closest to their home, yet former NAACP president Willie Green, pointed out to the district that student assignment was put in place to combat segregation.
A federal lawsuit was filed against Lee County to desegregate the school system. Today, the district uses student assignment which utilizes a random lottery system to assign students to one of their top school choices.
“One of the things you don’t realize is that you are where you are because you were put there,” said Green. “If you return to that, you will be returning to the federal court.”
Batch 1 of student assignment begins Jan. 19. Students have the opportunity to choose the schools they want to attend in their sub-zone or an adjacent sub-zone.