Angela Steeby lives about a mile from Dodge Elementary, the school her children will attend after their old school, Bryant Elementary, closed this spring.
But she plans to drive the first- and second-grader to and from the west-side school next year, even though district officials have deemed the route safe to walk.
“They’d have to cross Central, and that’s a really busy street,” Steeby said. “Even with a crosswalk, I don’t feel comfortable with that, not at their age.”
For decades, the Wichita school district has provided bus rides for children whose walking routes would force them across busy intersections, railroad tracks or streets with fast-moving traffic and no walkway. Nearly 2,600 children received hazardous-route transportation last year.
But starting soon, the district plans to re-evaluate and likely reduce the number of hazardous-route rides. They’ll spend the next several months checking school bus maps against recent road improvements, canceling some hazardous-route assignments and informing families that their children will have to walk or find another way to school starting in the fall of 2013.
“Over time, we have not followed back up as vast roadway improvements have been made,” Superintendent John Allison said.
“The city is investing in crosswalks. Where there may have been a ditch, there’s no longer a ditch – there are sidewalks and crossovers,” he said. “It became very obvious … that this was something we needed to take a look at.”
Wichita, the state’s largest school district, spends about $24 million annually on buses, fuel and related expenses. Much of it — between 60 and 80 percent, calculated using a complex formula — is reimbursed by the state or federal government.
But it is up to local school boards to determine whether they also provide transportation under hazardous conditions, such as cases where students live near dangerous intersections, railroad tracks and the like. Wichita, like most urban and suburban districts, provides such bus service.
Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation services, said he couldn’t estimate how many hazardous routes would be dropped or how much money saved by more strictly enforcing the hazardous busing policy. Many of the students along hazardous routes are picked up by buses on regular routes at no additional expense.
The primary goal, he said, is to apply the rules equitably across the district. Some children still ride buses along routes deemed hazardous years ago, while others walk to school in similar conditions. He did not provide specific examples.
“There’s still quite a bit more work to do, more analysis,” Armendariz said. “But we’re … getting close to where we’ll be able to look at hazardous policies as they exist now and in the future.”
In past years, parents worried about children walking along busy streets — even ones with sidewalks and crosswalks — have protested changes to the hazardous busing policy.
In 1995, parents from Cessna and Enterprise elementary schools protested when the district dropped a hazardous busing route along South Seneca, arguing that kids still faced busy intersections at MacArthur and 47th Street, a natural gas plant with heavy truck traffic, and three bars that did brisk business by 10 a.m. The board voted to restore those busing routes.
This time, board member Lynn Rogers said he predicts “a lot of push-back … from parents that are affected.”
Those include parents like Steeby, who stood at a busy street corner in west Wichita earlier this year and held a sign that read: “Would you want your kid crossing here right now?”
She and other parents fought a new boundary plan that closed Bryant and assigned students to schools farther away, across major thoroughfares.
Under the plan, approved in March, more than 200 children who attended Bryant were reassigned to other elementary schools: Black, which is east of West Street near Ninth Street; Dodge, south of Central near West Street; and OK, north of 13th Street and Zoo Boulevard.
During boundary discussions, district officials and board members said they would evaluate walking routes that would send Bryant students across busy streets. But Armendariz said last week that former Bryant students would not qualify for hazardous busing because there are lighted crosswalks on Central at Young, across West near 10th Street, and across Zoo near Ninth Street.
“I think the board said what they thought people wanted to hear just to get it (the boundary plan) through and to calm people down,” Steeby said. “Now it’s done, and they’ve pretty much said, ‘No, the busing is not going to happen.’ ”
Wichita’s transportation policies have come under fire in recent years as the district closed schools, froze teacher pay and cut more than $50 million from its budget. Buses, fuel and related expenses make up one of the district’s largest budget areas.
And last week board members learned they’ll need to spend even more next year — an estimated $350,000 more — because of new schools and boundary changes.
Transporting students to the new Northeast Magnet High School in Bel Aire will require 17 additional bus routes, officials said. Only four of the school’s 600 students live within 2 1/2 miles of the school, Armendariz said.
The new Isely Elementary in Bel Aire will require nine additional buses. The new James Enders Elementary, near 33rd Street South and Seneca, will require at least 16 buses.
And Christa McAuliffe Academy, a new K-8 in extreme southeast Wichita, will require 10 to 12 buses. Students who live close to that school, at 143rd Street East and Pawnee, likely will qualify for hazardous busing because there are ditches along both roadways leading to it.
“We have parents and community members who want more kids to walk and to bike to school for obesity reasons and those kinds of things,” said Rogers, the board member. “So we’ve got all these conflicting issues.”
Armendariz said he hopes to have a plan in place before the magnet school deadline next spring, so families could consider applying for magnet schools to get bus transportation. School officials will call affected families and review suggested walking routes or other options such as carpooling, he said.
“We’re not looking to change the policy at this point, just implement what is currently there,” Armendariz said.
Rogers, Sheril Logan and other board members said they want to see more details in coming months before hazardous busing routes are dropped.
“I understand it’s important to be fair throughout the city, where one child gets it (bus transportation) and another one doesn’t,” Rogers said. “But the struggle I have is … how does that impact overall safety for our kids?”