MARTIN COUNTY — Some students here who previously received free busing next year will be charged $425 to ride the school bus, the School Board decided Tuesday.
The district's new policy applies to most students who live within a 2-mile walking distance from school.
For the 2017-18 school year, students within the 2-mile walking area who want to ride the bus must apply for a seat. Open seats on existing bus routes would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Children within that area who face "hazardous walking conditions" — as defined by state law — are exempted from the new policy and will continue to receive free busing for as long as those conditions exist.
Students who receive free and reduced-price lunch would be charged only half the fee.
The new busing policy follows changes to state law, effective July 2015, that cut transportation funding for students who live within a 2-mile walking distance.
Along with that reduction in busing, 98 bus stops within the 2-mile walking distance will be eliminated.
District Transportation Director Kayleen Watts could not be reached for comment.
About 1,000 students who used those 98 bus stops were eligible because of hazardous walking conditions, school officials said.
Parent Kevin Flis, whose two sons ride the bus about 1.9 miles to J.D. Parker Elementary, told board members he had concerns about charging for busing.
“If we’re charging per student, that becomes more of a money-making opportunity than a get-the kids-to-school opportunity,” Flis said before the board's vote.
Board Member Christia Li Roberts, however, said the plan simply was a way to expand transportation options.
“This isn’t necessarily trying to reimburse us for the cost of that seat on bus,” Roberts said. “This is using our policy to create a way a student can ride in an empty seat.”
The plan is imperfect, according to Board Member Tina McSoley, but, after a year of discussions, it was essential the board make a decision.
“There was a moment of panic at the last meeting, realizing how much time we have,” she said. “I don’t agree with everything — there are some tweaks I’d like to make — but I really believe we don’t have time. We’ve been doing this for over a year.”
The "hazardous walking" designation would be limited next school year to certain Pinewood Elementary students whose walking route includes the intersection at Salerno Road and Celestial Drive, and to Felix A. Williams Elementary students whose paths cross Northeast Savannah Road and Northeast Dixie Highway. The board said it also would look into conditions for students along Kanner Highway where construction is underway.
Three potential plans were considered by the School Board Tuesday:
Create an "open-seat application" process that would allow students otherwise not eligible for transportation to ride, if there is a seat available on a route that is already serving the school. Seats would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Charge for seats. Base the charge on the funding from the Florida Department of Education to help with transportation costs. Next year, that would mean $425 per year. The fee would be revised every year to follow state funding.
Charge for bus seats. Base the charge on the cost to run a bus. According to the district, that is $785 for an elementary-school student, $930 for a middle-school student and $1,005 for a high-school student.
The School Board chose a hybrid of options 1 and 2, adding the reduced charge for free-and-reduced lunch students.