The school board voted in December 2016 to discontinue the courtesy bus service throughout Hillsborough County.
Families in a Plant City community are rallying in a last-ditch effort to save the courtesy bus service responsible for shuttling their children to school.
Residents in and around the Oakbrook Mobile Home Park on State Road 574 have started collecting signatures to petition anyone they can to retain the bus stop and prevent their children from walking a path they see as far too dangerous for children.
In December 2016, the Hillsborough County School Board voted 6 to 1 to end the countywide courtesy bus service to students who live within two miles of their school. According to a study by Gibson Consulting Group, the cut could save the Hillsborough County School District $4.5 million per year. By Florida statute, school districts only get reimbursed by the state for the transportation of students who live more than two miles from school.
Melissa Snively, the school board member representing Plant City in District 4, was the only dissenting vote.
“I argued the fact that not just Florida, but Hillsborough County, has one of the highest rates of pedestrian deaths in the country,” Snively said. “We need to make sure there are safe pathways first. The rest of the board has a different opinion on that, apparently.”
Overall, about 7,500 children will be impacted by the change county wide, according to Snively. In District 4, Snively said, 2,300 children will lose bus service.
“There are about 54 schools in the district,” she said. “Tomlin is one of the ones most impacted.”
According to a heat map displaying a concentration of Tomlin students compiled by the Hillsborough County Municipal Planning Organization, the largest concentration of Tomlin students live in or around the Oakbrook Mobile Home Park at 4404 State Road 574.
The bus stop where they get picked up is about 1.8 miles from the middle school.
While courtesy service to students within two miles of a school will be retained if the potential path meets the state criteria for hazardous walking conditions, the Oakbrook bus stop, according to an audit by the school district, does not meet the criteria.
Too close to home
Two years ago, Rosa Castro parked in a dirt lot along S.R. 574. It was a field used as a parking lot for a restaurant across the road — about one third of a mile from Oakbrook, on the way to Tomlin.
The trip across that road was her last.
A white cross with the words ‘Rosa, descansa en paz,’ Spanish for “rest in peace,” sits in front of a reflective ‘Drive Safely’ sign near the
location where Castro, 54, was struck by the right front of a 2000 Jeep Cherokee.
She died at the scene.
Despite her death and the death of pedestrian Santos Noriega, 33, on the same road one year earlier, the school district deemed the road safe enough for Castro’s 12-year-old grandchild and the other Tomlin students from Oakbrook to walk down every day on their way to school.
“That’s the same area where they want the kids to be walking,” Sandra Castro, Rosa Castro’s daughter and mother to a Tomlin student, said.
Sandra Castro is one of the signers of the petition to keep the bus stop. Oakbrook property manager Jessica Santos said nearly 400 people from the park and surrounding businesses have signed the petition.
Currently, there are no pedestrian paths along the section of S.R. 574 between Oakbrook and Tomlin. During certain stretches of the road, construction dominates the shoulders.
“There are plans to put in sidewalks in four or five years, but these kids need a solution now,” Santos said. “Even with sidewalks, the businesses are too busy.”
The Hillsborough County School District’s website has listed a number of options for alternative transportation on its website including organized groups of students walking together led by an adult and ride sharing programs, options which many see as insufficient.
“Walking on the shoulder is considered not hazardous on the survey,” Snively said. “In my opinion, it is, but not according to administrative code.”
Even ride sharing, Santos said, can be difficult for the families.
“They don’t understand the hardships,” Santos said. “Everyone is at work already and a lot of them (parents) don’t drive.”
According to Snively, though the matter has been decided by the school board, Superintendent Jeff Eakins can still decide how to implement the plans and what action to take concerning certain stops.
“He still has the authority to decide if there are areas in his opinion that are too hazardous,” she said. “He can say, ‘Maybe we need to wait one more school year.”
Additionally, Snively said anyone concerned can still bring the matter to the attention of city and county commissioners and state legislators — representatives who may be able to change legislation behind the loss of funding and hazardous roadway designations.
Until then, Tomlin students, many of whom do not have access to alternate transportation, are preparing for next year’s daily walk.
A letter sent to parents regarding the removal of courtesy bussing included a form for submittal if parents felt there was an error in the review of their address.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins and Jessica Vega, marketing communications at Hillsborough County Public Schools, did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.
Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at email@example.com