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School District Reduces Bus Services

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 09:35:00 AM

State budget cuts to education will force more parents to take responsibility for dropping off and picking up their children from Berkeley’s 11 public elementary schools starting in August. 

The Berkeley Board of Education at a board meeting Wednesday unanimously ap-proved the extension of walk boundary perimeters in the district, which will reduce bus services and prompt more students to walk, bike or be driven to school. An estimated 400 elementary school children will be affected by the reduction. 

Schools will allow only students who live outside a 1.5 mile radius of an elementary institution in the Berkeley Unified School District to reserve a seat on their bus in the new school year. 

The change will not affect middle or high school students because the district does not provide them with transportation services, except in the case of special education students. 

Berkeley Unified’s new walk boundary will increase the district’s existing walk boundary—which district officials said had been established in 1995—by .5 mile.  

District Superintendent Bill Huyett said there was no cause for alarm yet. 

“It’s one of the small things that comes with the budget cuts,” he said. “Many districts have completely dropped transportation. Berkeley Unified did not have to take such drastic measures.” 

Huyett said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was proposing to slash 65 percent from transportation funds while the Legislature was proposing a 20 percent cut. 

“We have to plan on the 65 percent cut,” Huyett said. “We are subsidizing transportation to a great extent. The state will not pay.” 

On May 27, the school board approved Huyett’s recommendation for the district’s 2009-2010 budget reductions, including laying off two bus drivers. 

The district’s Transportation Manager, Bernadette Cormier, told the board that data from 2008-2009 showed that the loss of the two drivers would affect transportation services, thereby making it necessary for the district to extend the walk boundary. 

Approximately 1,700 of the district’s 9,000 students use the district’s school buses. The cuts to transportation will result in a savings of $184,076 for Berkeley Unified. 

“These are choices none of us want to make, but we are in a tight budget year and every program has had an impact,” said Board Director John Selawsky. 

Berkeley Unified is divided into four geographic zones. The district often accommodates students living in one of these zones but assigned to a school in a different zone if they request it, there is capacity and it doesn’t change the time or cost structure of the routes. 

However, the reconfiguration of the walk boundary would mean that potentially 48 “out-of-zone” students would be excluded from bus stop assignments, because the stops would no longer be in proximity to where a student had requested one. 

Busing for private after-school programs may have to be reduced or eliminated, Cormier said, explaining that the district was taking a careful look over the next three weeks at how the routes would shape out. 

“If we have to reconstruct our boundaries, we might have to be a little tighter with these programs,” Cormier said. 

Berkeley Unified currently provides bus services to six to eight private after-school programs, which fall along the bus’s regular route, at no additional cost. 

School Board President Nancy Riddle suggested that, given the cuts to the transportation program, the district might consider charging families for transporting their children to non-public after-school programs. Board Vice President Karen Hemphill stressed the importance of having a district-run after school program at every elementary school, which she said provided parents with an alternative. 

Cormier told the Planet that in difficult budget climates, it was not unusual for districts to charge students for transportation services to programs outside their jurisdiction. 

She said the district’s transportation department was still working on what specific routes would be affected by the cuts, based on the 2009-2010 data. Her staff will collaborate with the district’s communications team to inform families likely to be affected by the service reductions. 

The schools, Cormier said, would work with Alameda County’s Safe Routes to School program to address the impact of the changes on traffic safety and street crossings. 

At present, most bus stops at the Berkeley elementary schools are located within certain neighborhood areas bound by busy streets. District staff make every attempt to avoid having students walk through heavy traffic while walking to these stops, Cormier said. 

Additionally, students who live on the boundary of the current 1 mile radius are allowed to take the school bus if they cite safety reasons for not walking to school. They are picked up from the bus stop situated closest to their residence. The district will continue to consider these requests for the new 1.5-mile walk boundary, Cormier said. 

The district, Cormier said, would work with Safe Routes to School and the city of Berkeley’s Injury Prevention Division to address traffic flow near the affected schools and provide resources on alternative traveling arrangements to parents. 

The school board at its June 10 meeting approved the launch of a traffic safety campaign to address reduction in congestion, traffic, noise and pollution around Berkeley’s public schools and promote walking and biking and pedestrian safety in classrooms as well as among parents. 

Traffic safety posters, assessment of crossing guard placements and traffic engineering upgrades are some of the other things that will be addressed. 

The push for bicycle and pedestrian safety was in response to a spike in pedestrian accidents in the school district over spring, the most serious of which led to the death of LeConte Elementary School kindergartner Zachary Michael Cruz.