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Bus route cuts are

"The Oak Harbor School District has not made a final decision on whether to cut bus routes that would eliminate district-provided transportation to students that live or attend daycare within a mile radius of their schools.I brought up the subject now so that there would be time for discussion as opposed to simply changing the route with school's start in September, said Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools.The topic was discussed at the regular public meeting of the school board June 25. The proposed cuts in routes would discontinue bus transportation to and from school for students that attend daycare at the Armed Services YMCA and Der Kinderhuis, as well as in residential areas that are within the one-mile radius of the school they attend.However, students who live in the Shannon Forest area or south of Pioneer Way, or other areas where the walk to school would be considered dangerous, will still have bus transportation.If they're in a dangerous area, we're not going to make them walk, said Vonnie Edwards, school district director of transportation.Students living in the Shannon Forest area would need to cross Leorland Drive to get to Hillcrest Elementary School. There is no crosswalk on Leorland.Edwards included the Shannon Forest area in her report to the school board, where she outlined her recommended changes to the bus routes, to inform them that this area is one for which the district receives no state funding for student transportation because the homes there are within the one-mile radius of the school. She said the inclusion of the area in her report was not her endorsement to identify those children as walkers.Edwards took on the job as transportation director a year ago, and has noticed that the bus routes and the transportation budget could be revised, she said.Putting together a transportation budget is a real challenge - staying inside it is a real piece of work, Edwards said.The money saved by the proposed route cuts would amount to $40,000 for the 2001-2002 school year. This is money that has been coming out of the transportation budget. Rising and unpredictable fuel costs and cost-of-living raises for transportation employees that have been mandated but not funded by the state have placed a strain on transportation spending, said Schulte.The state funds student transportation to schools that are beyond the mile radius, as the crow flies, from the students' homes or other point of pick-up. In addition the state used to provide additional transportation money for students within the mile radius if they lived in an area that would be too dangerous for them to walk, but the state cut that funding several years ago.Edwards said she thinks the public is under the impression that these are new state funding cuts for this year, when in fact the current formula has been in place for three or four years, she said.Schulte has said publicly that he does not agree with the state formula for providing transportation funds. He would like to provide transportation to every student that needs it, he said in an interview last week.Edwards is directed to stay within the budget for transportation, she said. Other districts may transfer money from the general fund to the transportation budget, she said, but not in Oak Harbor. Taking money from the general fund to supplement the transportation fund would be taking money away from students' educational funding, Schulte said.However, in a follow-up phone interview Tuesday, Edwards said the Oak Harbor School District transportation department has another source for generating revenue. The certified mechanics employed by the district work on Coupeville's school buses as well as the fire trucks for Oak Harbor Fire Department. Both entities pay the school district transportation department for these services.Without the expenses of the additional bus routes, Edwards said she has some really neat ideas for this money, which would both streamline the system and provide for added safety. Some of her ideas include purchasing video cameras to install in buses, engine diagnostic equipment, and a computer and software for both inventory and mechanical service. Additionally, Edwards would like to have a computerized routing system that would replace hand-made mapping.The addition of the routing system would save a lot of man-hours, Edwards said.Edwards said she has recommended the changes because she has seen inconsistencies in the system over the past year.The problem we have here is I'm new, Edwards said. Part of her self-orientation has been examining the school district's transportation system to familiarize herself with it. This raised questions in her mind.Edwards said she began to wonder why some children walk and some children ride buses, while all those children were within the mile radius of the school. She said she drove the routes to make sure they have sidewalks and crosswalks, key factors in making a route safer for a child to walk. She cited the specific example of the area of 6th Street and SE Dock. There are sidewalks all the way to Oak Harbor Elementary School, she said. Then she began to wonder, she said.Did they make it this way because of the daycares (YMCA and Der Kinderhuis which are nearby), or because it was hazardous? No one can tell me why, Edwards said. It then became and equity issue. During the past year Edwards said she estimates she has received four or five requests from other daycares for the school district to provide bus transportation to the children in their care, and she has had to deny those requests because those daycare facilities are within the one mile. Those daycare providers take it upon themselves to give parents the added service of getting their children to and from school.We try to treat everybody alike, and part of treating them alike is using state guidelines, said Schulte. If we follow those rules, at least that's consistent.Schulte again said that's the rule - it isn't the rule I would write, and the state Legislature is making the rules.Schulte also addressed the issue of the Navy's Morale, Welfare and Recreation Students Before and After School Fun and Enrichment program, which occupies space at the old North Whidbey Middle School building, now the interim site used when schools are under construction. The children enrolled in the SAFE program will still have access to bus transportation because the bus transfer station is slated to be located at the new North Whidbey Middle School, within walking distance of the SAFE program facilities. SAFE has rented the space from the school district, an arrangement that goes back 10 or 12 years, Schulte said. SAFE is not an Oak Harbor School District program.When the old North Whidbey Middle School is torn down, SAFE will have to find a new location, and it will not be the responsibility of the district to find one for them. The school district is responsible for taking care of school business and SAFE knows that, Schulte said.Edwards has also proposed to revise the bus transfer system, to make it better.It had grown to proportions that I think it was an unsafe system, Edwards said. There were too many transfers, too many people, and too much room for error, Edwards said. You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611 "

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