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Town Hall meeting addresses student pedestrian safety

By Staff | Apr 17, 2019

A sparse, yet invigorated group attended the School District of Lee County’s Town Hall meeting on school bus stop safety Tuesday evening to voice their concerns, displeasures, suggestions and everything in between.

The overwhelming majority of residents who turned out wanted to know what the school district is doing right now to make school bus stops safer for the 49,000 children who rely on bus transportation each day.

“Right now we’ve already been working together with our transportation department, our safety security department, the city of Cape Coral — the county has also stepped up to the plate and is doing the same thing out in Lehigh with the bus stops and the benches,” said School District Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins at the Town Hall.

A task force also has been formed, said Adkins. It includes 23 members from Lee municipalities, law enforcement and school board members, started by Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag.

“This is a countywide issue we have here,” Szerlag said.

The group of stakeholders met last week, and, according to Szerlag, discussed in detail traffic safety solutions that incorporate sidewalks, street lights, traffic signs, bus stop seating, education and awareness and best practices.

“Moving forward, our next steps will be to continue to explore the appropriate traffic safety solutions for implementation throughout the city, and I’m hoping that extrapolates to the county as well,” he read from a letter he wrote to the stakeholders group following their initial meeting.

Szerlag said the task force is working on three initiatives:

1) Sidewalks: The city’s current goal is to install sidewalks on all major roads.

In addition, Public Works staff is compiling data to evaluate the potential benefits versus costs of installing sidewalks on local roads.

2) Sidewalks funding: Staff is currently working to identity funding sources for construction including grants, assessments, etc.

3) Bus stop seating: A sub committee has been established with the goal of imposing a pilot program for bus stop seating identifying priority locations, placement of seating and performance measures.

The subcommittee is headed by City of Cape Coral Traffic Engineer Bill Corbet and will also address the logistics of accepting donations while adhering to engineering standards.

“We have over 96,000 kids in our school district and bringing them to and from school is quite an enormous undertaking,” said Adkins. “We do promise to listen. We do promise to answer questions to the best of our knowledge and the best that we can. We also are striving to work together to make our community a safer place. This is a community issue, and I think we have to work together as a community to come up with better solutions.”

There are 6,958 bus stops throughout Lee County comprised of 753 routes transporting 49,231 riders making 35,599 stops a day.

According to the school district, since August, they have had to make 16,149 stop changes due to parents wishing to move their children from one stop to another, student mobility, student growth, construction and safety concerns such as registered sex offenders moving into an area.

Adkins discussed a possible solution to School Choice, as School Choice and pushing back start times was also discussed early on in the meeting. Adkins said it may not be as quick of a fix as it may seem.

“If you did away with School Choice — say you just did away with it — remember you still have the issue of transporting those 49,000 kids to and from school. You still have that issue that you’re going to have to deal with,” said Adkins.

He said that the district is working on something called proximity-based student assignment.

“One of the things that we want to do moving forward that we already have under way is what we call proximity- based student assignment,” Adkins said.

“So today, you have some of our neighborhoods that have 14, up to 17 choices for a Kindergartner, and we’re trying to bring that down to a more reasonable number, around the place where the student lives.”

Adkins said they have a program already in place where you can input your address and it gives you the five or six closest options to your home.

“We hope to route our buses in the near future around the proximity-based student assignment system,” Adkins said. “That should decrease some of the ride times and also, I think, get more of that neighborhood school concept.”

His thoughts on pushing back start times for some schools?

“We’re not opposed to looking at start times, however, you have to consider that right now we have to run four tiers,” he said.

Pushing back one tier time would certainly affect the other times, said Adkins.

For instance, middle school starts at 9:45 a.m. If their start time was pushed back say, an hour, you might find students starting school at almost 11 a.m., which can cause more issues, said Adkins.

“If they’re starting that late, what time are they getting home? Particularly during winter time, they’re getting home after dark. All of that goes into the thinking,” he said.

Condensing the tiers would also cause hiring issues, said Adkins.

“If you were to do three tiers or two tiers, what would have to do is hire 1,000 drivers, or 1,400 drivers, and this workforce simply will not supply that,” he said.

Of the 50 or so attendees present at the Board Room of the Lee County Public Education Center, many went up to the podium to give their perspective on the issue.

Those speaking included parents, concerned residents, solution-makers and family of child victims.

The first to speak was the great uncle of 12-year-old Alana Tamplin, who lost her life after being hit by a car on a road with no sidewalks and no lights walking home from dropping her younger sister off at the bus stop in January in North Fort Myers.

“I like what you’re saying — I hear what you’re saying and I hope you implement it, because if another child gets killed in the dark I’m holding each and every one of you responsible, as every parent here should. We’re sick of it,” he said.

Public input included many different remedies to combat the issue of school bus stop safety that included educating children, starting school later, having a centralized bus stop for children in an area, speed bumps at bus stops, volunteers at bus stops, solar lights and funding.

Agitation started to fill the room as many attendees felt that those on the panel — which included Adkins, Lee County School Board Chair Gwyn Gittens, Lee County Schools Director of Safety and Security Rick Parfitt and Lee County Schools Director of Transportation Services Roger Lloyd — were not giving answers they felt were sufficient.

The frustration even prompted one attendee to ask, “What would you have done if we didn’t step in?,” referencing the community involvement in placing benches at bus stops around the area.

Cape Coral resident and mother of seven, Nicole Fitzpatrick, came out of the meeting without much optimism.

“I feel that they just threw a whole bunch of numbers around and tried to talk people in circles and not a damn thing was addressed,” she said.

She is part of the initiative “Benches For Our Babes,” which began shortly after the passing of 8-year-old Layla Aiken, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver while waiting for her bus in Cape Coral last month. Layla’s family and friends also were present Tuesday night.

Benches For Our Babes’ goal is to place benches at every bus stop in the area so that these tragedies are avoidable.

The biggest issue in her eyes is not having safe spots for children to wait for the bus.

“We’ve dropped 130 benches in the last two weeks. We plan on dropping 100 more this weekend. We’re doing what we need to do as a community. The School Board should be on board with helping us make sure these kids are safe. I’m tired of being talked around in circles. It’s going to take another kid getting hit and killed — and it’s going to keep on happening — they need to take action and it needs to happen now,” Fitzpatrick said.

She spoke about how her kids got a bench for their bus stop, and it has made a world of difference.

“Now that they have a bench, they’re so happy because they have a safe spot to sit and wait,” she said. “And it takes us getting out, and meeting our neighbors, and talking to our neighbors. The guy that’s sponsoring my children’s bench, he has my phone number. If there’s an issue, he can contact me. And that’s what it’s going to take because we can’t rely on the School District and we can’t rely on our cities. We have to be the change.”

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj