Note: This story was last updated at 9:20 a.m. July 12.
Parents concerned about student safety are protesting a recent decision by Oak Ridge Schools to expand the student walk zone to 1.5 miles.
In the past two days, they’ve started a petition and Facebook group to oppose the June 23 decision, and they’ve organized a protest, rally, and walks through the expanded walk zones at several schools.
“We’re serious about this,” said Daniel Morgan, who has two sons at Linden Elementary School and a daughter who starts at Robertsville Middle School this fall. “The citizens are concerned about the safety of the children.”
The expanded walk zones mean that bus service will no longer be available to students who live within 1.5 miles of Oak Ridge schools. The change could affect 1,800 students. The new bus stops have been posted on the Oak Ridge Schools website.
The opposition has ramped up as a new school year looms. Students at Willow Brook Elementary School return to class next week, on July 17, and the first day for most students is Aug. 11.
On Thursday, Oak Ridge parent Laurie Paine started a Facebook group called STOP Oak Ridge Walk Zone. It already has 255 members.
Paine has also organized protests from 7:30-9 a.m. Thursday at Willow Brook and the Oak Ridge Preschool. Her daughter Ashley Paine died when she was run over by a school bus at Oak Ridge Turnpike and Illinois Avenue in November 2007.
Morgan said he learned about the changes to the walk zone through Paine. He started a petition on Change.org on Thursday to stop the walk zone and had already collected 187 signatures as of early Friday afternoon, close to his goal of 200 signatures. It’s a show of support, Morgan said.
“Please stop the Oak Ridge Walk Zone, as it will be putting our children at risk,” the petition said. “Elementary and middle school age children should not have to walk a mile and a half to come to school. There are enough signatures to show that the citizen’s of Oak Ridge are concerned over this decision and the safety of our children. One child was killed (riding a bicycle) from school not too long ago, and we do not want a repeat of this type of accident. Nor do we want our children subject to kidnapping or anything else. The safety of our children should not be sacrificed because the school system has to make a budget cut somewhere.”
The walk zones were expanded in June to help the school system reduce a $1.25 million budget deficit. School officials said the larger walk area for students is allowed under state regulations, and it is expected to save about $500,000.
Morgan wants school officials to look for other cuts. School officials modified their budget—the expanded walk zones were the largest cut—after the Oak Ridge City Council declined to raise the property tax rate to give the school system more money.
“I just don’t think that they should cause children to be at risk, to be unsafe, for them to meet their budget cuts,” Morgan said.
He said his family lives about 1.6-1.7 miles from the schools.
“It’s close to being borderline,” Morgan said.
His 11-year-old daughter, who has a kidney disorder and sometimes has trouble walking without doubling over, will have to hike up busy North Illinois Avenue from RMS to West Outer Drive, then down busy West Outer Drive, Morgan said.
His two sons—ages 8 and 9—will have to walk down Robertsville Road from Linden, then up a big hill on Louisiana and down West Outer.
“For their age, they shouldn’t have to be climbing those hills unsupervised,” Morgan said. “Kids should not have to walk that far.”
But it was not immediately clear what changes, if any, school officials might make. The current fiscal year started July 1.
At their June 23 meeting, Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer and Secretary Angi Agle said they had not heard much from parents, if at all, about the changes to school transportation, except for preschool transportation. The school board did save preschool transportation, a program that costs roughly $74,000 per year.
More information will be added as it becomes available.