The Wednesday change in how bus service is mapped could help about 500 students, reducing the number of children affected by expanded zones where parents will have to provide transportation to schools from 1,800 to 1,300, officials said.
Those students would have been in the expanded 1.5-mile “parent responsibility zone,” where bus service is not provided and parents have to arrange transportation. The expanded parent responsibility zone, which is also sometimes called a PRZ or walk zone, was approved by school officials in June.
Oak Ridge school officials announced Wednesday that they were changing how the 1.5 miles is calculated, switching from a 1.5-mile radius measured by air (also known as “as the crow flies”) to actual walking distance. That means the expanded no-bus service zone will now affect fewer families. Parents called the change a small but positive step.
Even with the modification, though, parents continue to have concerns. The protests kicked into high gear last week, and some parents expressed concerns during a Wednesday evening meeting at Girls Inc. Among the concerns were children who have to cross busy roadways or pass by the homes of registered sex offenders.
“We are paying property taxes, and our children’s safety should come first,” parent Beverly Heun said. “Our transportation should not have been cut.”
“My son has to cross the street at the intersection where the little girl was hit in 2007,” parent Amanda Jenkins said. She has a 12-year-old son who is autistic and will have to cross busy Oak Ridge Turnpike at Illinois Avenue to get home to Rolling Hills Apartments. That intersection, among the busiest in Oak Ridge, is where Ashley Paine, who was a student at Robertsville Middle School, died after being run over by a school bus about seven years ago.
Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer told the crowd of about 40 people at Girls Inc. on Wednesday that school officials are also very concerned about student safety. Parent-teacher organizations at local schools are already working on setting up carpools to help provide transportation for those who need help, he said.
Two local organizations—Girls Inc. and Boys and Girls Clubs of the Clinch Valley—expect to provide transportation to another 100 children at Willow Brook Elementary School and Robertsville Middle School because of the expanded parent responsibility zone.
“Transportation is already a strain on us,” said Rhoni Basden, Girls Inc. executive director. “(The change) limits the number of kids that can come to our program.”
It’s expected to cost Girls Inc. another $15,000. Basden said the nonprofit organization bought a bus and hired a driver because of the expanded zone and is now providing transportation to 32 girls at Robertsville Middle School and Willow Brook Elementary School who didn’t previously rely on Girls Inc. for transportation.
She said enrollment in Girls Inc. has now been capped at 76.
Adam Wilson, unit director for Boys and Girls Club of the Clinch Valley, said his organization expects to pick up 35 children each at Willow Brook and Robertsville because of the change, or about 70 more total. He expects the transportation budget to double.
The two nonprofits organized the Wednesday evening meeting, and they said they didn’t know yet how the Wednesday afternoon announcement on how the bus zone mileage is calculated would affect them.
The change in how the distance is calculated is expected to cost the school system about $200,000. Bruce Borchers, Oak Ridge Schools superintendent, said the school system can amend its budget to use unspent funds from last year’s budget that would have gone into the school system’s fund balance. However, it’s not clear if the money will be available again next year.
“This is just a Band-Aid,” Fillauer said at the Wednesday evening meeting. “We can’t continue to Band-Aid.”
There was brief debate about the Oak Ridge City Council’s decision to not raise property taxes in June to provide more money to the schools. But Fillauer said he didn’t want the meeting to turn into a debate and instead wanted to focus on a resolution. With budgets tight, everyone needs to work together, Fillauer said.
He said school officials didn’t want to make any cuts in June, but they also wanted to keep personnel intact and not cut staff or increase class sizes.
The parent responsibility zones were expanded during a June 23 school board meeting 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 at the time, it was expected to save about $500,000.
But parents have said they want school officials to look for other cuts.
School officials modified their budget—the expanded walk zones were the largest cut—after the City Council rejected a proposed property tax rate increase to give the school system more money. Board members pointed out that, with money tight, school employees did not receive pay raises, the purchase of about $400,000 in textbooks was delayed, and some planned hiring will not occur.
The walk zone or parent responsibility zone was previously .15 miles for elementary school children and .25 miles for other students.
It was expanded for one year in the mid-2000s.
Fillauer said Knox County Schools have a one-mile walk zone for elementary school children and a 1.5-mile zone for older students, while Maryville has a 1.5-mile walk zone for all kids.
Oak Ridge Schools Assistant Superintendent Chris Marczak said children who are certified as disabled and receive special education services at school will not be affected by the expanded parent responsibility zone in Oak Ridge. Fillauer urged parents to contact the schools that their children attend to discuss any other transportation concerns.