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Navy, mothers unite against bus plan

An unusual alliance formed Tuesday evening when the U.S. Navy teamed up with exasperated mothers to take on the Oak Harbor School District in an issue that they say equates to the safety of children and the quality of life for military members here.

Although the unlikely allies didn’t plan in advance to take the same side in the contentious school bus transportation issue, the result was a one-two punch in favor of putting more money into the district’s school bus budget.

Parents of children in the Oak Harbor School District, as well as Whidbey Island Naval Air Station officials, want the district to continue to provide more than state standard school bus transportation to students. At issue is whether bus service such be suspended within a one-mile radius of schools, as state law allows.

One mother, Stacy Rodoph, said there is only so much parents can do to keep their children safe and to get them to school. Rodoph argued that school transportation is a community, and a school district, responsibility.

“I understand to a degree what they’re proposing,” Rodoph said prior to the start of the meeting. “But I don’t understand how, in a community of our nature, they’re going to do it.”

The Oak Harbor School District Transportation Committee heard from a group of parents and from the command master chief of the base on Tuesday evening, at one of a series of meetings to hammer out new school bus transportation routes that the district can afford.

The committee, made up of school district staff, parents and community members, was charged by the school board to come up with suggestions for a solution, and to present those suggestions to the board in May.

The committee was formed in response to transportation department-proposed cuts and route changes that would balance the department’s budget. School transportation departments received funding from the state only to provide transportation to students beyond a one-mile radius, as the crow flies, from their homes to their schools. The controversy began last summer, when the school transportation department announced that it needed to cut routes to two Oak Harbor daycare facilities, because no state funding is received for those routes.

Master Chief Rick Rose, who works directly for base Capt. Steve Black, said he has been inundated with emails and phone calls from military members about the personal challenges that would be caused should routes be cut and the one-mile radius rule be instituted with the start of next school year.

Black is “very, very, very concerned” about the possibility of Navy active duty service members having a difficult time getting their children to and from school, and to and from daycare providers, Rose said.

These concerns equate to a quality of life issue for military personnel stationed here, Rose said.

“It is not only affecting those families. It is affecting our entire Navy community here,” Rose told the rest of the committee. Rose is the air station appointee to the committee.

Rose said that Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools, had told Black that he was concerned about Navy members taking their children out of Oak Harbor School District and enrolling them elsewhere.

“I’m not sure if that’s happening, but he was concerned enough about it to ask Captain Black,” Rose said.

Children of Navy personnel make up about 60 percent of the full-time student enrollment of Oak Harbor School District.

The lack of transportation for children to get to school and back, or to and from daycare providers, would be a factor in how military personnel view the school district, Rose said.

“If that is happening, this sort of thing certainly wouldn’t help,” Rose said.

At least one parent present at the meeting thinks the Navy should use the military dependent enrollment figures, and the Federal Impact Aid the district receives for children of military personnel, as a trump card.

“If the Navy can’t have transportation to the SAFE (program), then I suggest the Navy take the money and put it into their own education system, and have those dependents go to an education system where they’re going to have transportation provided to them and an education given to them,” said Karen Hossfeld, a single mom with two children enrolled in the district.

About half a dozen community members showed up for the open forum, some of whom have become regulars at the meetings.

“I have several concerns from the last meeting,” said Brenda Cotter, the mother of four students in the district.

She outlined concerns ranging from wanting to know the exact definition of a safe-walking area, to crosswalks with crossing guards on busy roads.

Reciting a state law that says school districts must provide bus transportation for children within the one-mile radius if a hazardous walking condition exists, Cotter asked the committee to find out the state definition of a hazardous condition. Her main concern, Cotter said, is Midway Boulevard, which has crosswalks, but can still pose a hazard when drivers don’t pay attention.

“All four of my children cross that street, all four of them. And I thank the Lord every day when they come home,” Cotter said, emotion evident in her voice.

Cotter suggested the committee consider trying to get yellow flashing lights at the crosswalks. While she would love to drive her children to school so that they wouldn’t have to cross Midway Boulevard, Cotter, who is active-duty military, said she just cannot.

“I can’t be everywhere all the time. I have a job, and so does my husband. He’s active duty and deployed,” Cotter said.

Dave Peterson, assistant superintendent of schools, said that the school district is looking at options. He said he is discussing with daycare providers the idea of providing before school and after school care at the individual schools.

He said the committee will discuss that possibility at a later date.

Parents involved in the issue say that route cuts would result in much more than an inconvenience to them. The issue is safety of the children, and that should be paramount.

“I don’t get it,” Karen Hossfeld said. “If the funds aren’t there, then maybe we should look at putting the funds there and taking them away from something that isn’t giving our children safety.”

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