Note: This story was last updated at 11:15 a.m. August 12.
After hearing impassioned pleas from parents and grandparents, the Oak Ridge school board on Monday temporarily restored bus service to about 1,300 students who had been affected by an expanded but controversial “parent responsibility zone.” Parents of students who lived within that zone were responsible for getting their children to and from schools; bus service was not provided.
The parent responsibility zone, or PRZ, was expanded to 1.5 miles in June as part of a move to reduce a $1.25 million budget deficit. But parents of elementary and middle school students, in particular, objected to having students as young as five years old cross busy four-lane roadways like Oak Ridge Turnpike or Illinois Avenue to get to school, or walk past the homes of registered sex offenders or down roads with no sidewalks.
Parents, including single mothers, also expressed concerns about losing their jobs because they have to leave work early to pick up their children. They also said the expanded parent responsibility zone, which some call a “walk zone,” had a disproportionate impact on low-income families and elementary school children. They were disappointed by a lack of crossing guards near their schools, where their children or grandchildren cross busy roads. (City officials say they are accepting applications for crossing guards.)
“This is too dangerous,” resident Regina Wood said. “The safest way to get these kids to school is a bus,” resident Bill Dodge said.
On Monday, after a series of protests that started in July, the Oak Ridge Board of Education agreed in a 4-1 vote to use $300,000 in one-time money from the school system’s fund balance to restore the bus routes this year and then study the issue comprehensively before the next school year—or try to obtain more funding. The Monday night vote essentially reverses the June decision.
The bus routes likely won’t be restored immediately however, and possibly not until October. Among other things, up to three school bus drivers might need to be hired for an additional six routes, and buses will have to be made “road ready.” Still, advocates of restoring bus service were pleased for now.
“For today, it’s a victory,” said parent Laurie Paine, who led the protests against the expanded parent responsibility zones, including through social media.
The restoration of the bus routes was proposed by school board member Bob Eby. Also voting for it were Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer and board members Dan DiGregorio and Jenny Richter. Board member Angi Agle, who participated in the meeting by telephone, voted “no.”
The expanded PRZ was initially expected to save about $500,000, and the 1.5 miles measured “as the crow flies.” It originally affected an estimated 1,800 students.
But in July, school officials announced they were changing how the 1.5 miles was calculated, switching from “as the crow flies” to actual walking distance. That meant the expanded no-bus service zone affected about 500 fewer students. Parents called that change a small but positive step. It was expected to cost about $200,000 and was made possible by unspent funds from last year’s budget that would have gone into the school system’s fund balance.
That left another $300,000 that school officials had to come up with to restore bus service.
However, it’s not clear if the $500,000 will be available again next year, and school officials will presumably not be able to use the fund balance again. That money is meant for emergencies and to fill in funding gaps for payroll and bills, and not for recurring expenses.
Karen Gagliano, Oak Ridge Schools director of business and support services, expressed some concern about using more money from the fund balance. She said the $500,000 used for transportation and the delayed purchase of textbooks, among other things, means the school system could start the Fiscal Year 2015 budget discussions with a $1.8 million deficit, before anything new is added.
“I don’t feel comfortable,” Gagliano said.
Calling it a difficult decision, board members also expressed some concern.
“I feel like I’m pushing this down the road for someone else to deal with,” said Richter, who, along with DiGregorio, is not seeking re-election this fall. (Eby is.) “This will not go away.”
She said the school board had seriously considered the transportation issue.
Some parents said the community had a responsibility to go to the Oak Ridge City Council and show support for the Board of Education. The school board had been put in a position where it had to make bad choices, said parent Paige Marshall, who has two students in the school system and a father who taught in Oak Ridge for 37 years.
“This is not who we are as a town,” Marshall said.
School officials modified their budget in June—the expanded walk zones were the largest expenditure cut—after the City Council rejected a proposed property tax rate increase to give the school system more money. Other impacts ranged from no pay raises for school employees to the delayed purchase of about $400,000 in textbooks.
“None of us like the cuts that we were forced to make this year,” Eby said. “I’m not sure we knew how significant they were.”
The parent responsibility zone was previously .15 miles for elementary school children and .25 miles for other students, and with Monday’s decision, it will presumably return to that.
The parent responsibility zone was expanded for one year in the mid-2000s. School officials said the larger walk area for students is allowed under state regulations, and other districts have similar parent responsibility zones and sometimes even larger ones.
Paine, who said she was surprised but happy about Monday night’s vote, said she wants to ensure that the parent responsibility zone is not expanded for a third time.
Paine’s daughter Ashley died when she was run over by a school bus at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike and Illinois Avenue in November 2007.
“I’m fighting for everyone’s children,” Paine said.
She said the decision made Monday is only a one-time solution. But it “sets the groundwork” for improving transportation next year, Paine said.
See previous stories here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.