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Hillsborough Commissioners weigh in on School Board’s decision to end courtesy busing

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Hillsborough County School Board’s decision last year to drop so-called courtesy busing provoked anger among parents whose children were directly affected by the move.

And Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman inspired other sharp responses Thursday when she suggested commissioners must do something about it.

“There are so many parents driving their children to school, basically because it’s unsafe, and now we have queuing issues at the schools,” Murman said.

Looking for ways to cut costs, the school district voted 6-1 last December to end free courtesy busing for about 7,500 high school and middle school students who live within two miles of their school. The effects of that decision weren’t immediately felt until last month, however, once the new school year started.

The board voted Thursday to have County Administrator Mike Merrill meet with Superintendent Jeff Eakins and officials with Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department on what — if anything — can be done about the issue.

That decision came after the majority of the board said that they sharply disagreed with Murman’s original proposal, which was to press the school board to revisit their decision to cancel the service.

Murman acknowledged that other counties also don’t offer courtesy busing and it is not mandated by the state Legislature. But she said that since the new school year began, many children are walking in unsafe conditions because of a lack of sidewalks in the affected areas.

But several board members pushed back, saying that the move reeked of “mission creep.”

“We as a board of county commissioners I feel may be overstepping our boundaries with this type of resolution,” said Les Miller. “The members of the school board themselves have the utmost responsibility of taking care of the children and doing what they can to make sure that those students have a safe way to school.”

Miller also referred to the state Legislature’s policies that have significantly reduced funding to school districts like Hillsborough’s in the past year, and said that courtesy busing was a $3-$5 million annual hit to the district’s already overstretched budget.

Murman said the lack of sufficient sidewalks leading up to some of the schools made it a public safety issue.

Commissioner Victor Crist stated that if that was the issue, then that was the board’s responsibility, not the school district’s. “Shame on us,” he said.

While applauding Murman’s initiative in getting the conversation started, he too warned about the board getting into the school district’s business. “We shouldn’t be directing other governments responsibilities. We should be looking at ours,” he said.

Merrill took exception to the notion that the BOCC had dropped the ball on infrastructure projects around some of the schools in question, saying that the board deliberately hadn’t addressed the issue of sidewalks there because there was courtesy busing taking place along those routes.

“We were trying to focus our limited resources on sidewalk safety but since there was a busing program, that wasn’t necessary,” Merrill said.

Commissioner Chair Stacy White, a former school board member, said that he hoped that if the talks between the county and the school board resulted in the school district resorting back to courtesy busing, so be it. “I don’t want to be in a position where the county commission spends $1.50 or $1.25 in order to save the school board $1.00. That is just not a wise use of resources,” he said.

“I do not like the way the motion is stated as coming back with a plan,” said Commission Ken Hagan, the only board member to oppose Murman’s motion to have the county speak with the school board. “Because inherent with that is a financial commitment from this board, and we simply do not have the money.” Hagan also said he didn’t like to “meddle” in other government’s responsibilities.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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