Children in Bethel Park who walk to school might soon have the option to take the bus.
Bethel Park School Board was expected to decide at its Sept. 25 meeting whether to add bus routes to pick up the students who live within walking distance from their schools.
Several parents of Independence Middle School students urged the board to offer bussing during the committee meeting Sept. 18. They argued that while they may live relatively close to the school, their children’s routes to school are not safe because there are no sidewalks and several blind curves. Add inexperienced and potentially distracted teen drivers heading to high school, and “we have a recipe for disaster,” said Lisa Turske of Summit Street.
Typically, students who live within a mile-and-a-half of the high school or Independence Middle School are expected to walk to school, since no bussing is offered. The radius for younger children is much smaller; those who live within a half mile from their elementary schools or Neil Armstrong Middle School are expected to walk.
Offering bussing to those close to their schools will mean about $255,000 in upfront costs for additional buses and about $77,000 in additional annual labor costs to hire extra bus drivers. Some school board members seemed amenable to the idea, despite the cost, because some of the routes to the schools do not seem safe.
However, the state Department of Transportation studied many of those routes about three years ago and determined they were safe. Parents dispute those findings, arguing that state Department of Transportation officials probably surveyed the roads at times of lighter traffic, not during the morning rush, when the roads are most dangerous.
The state offers grants to make routes to school safer, such as installing sidewalks, but Bethel Park probably does not qualify since the state deemed those roads to be safe for pedestrians. The grant program is part of the Safe Routes to School movement, which is intended to encourage children to walk or bike to school as a way to increase physical activity and combat childhood obesity.
Some school board members asked for ways the school district and the municipality could make the route safer, perhaps through increased police presence. Superintendent Joseph Pasquerilla said Bethel Park Police are quite responsive every time he asks for increased patrols, but police cannot maintain a heavy presence around the schools every day. Once police leave, the bad driving returns, he said.
Director David Amaditz suggested that the school district pay for an overtime detail so that officers could be there consistently.
Other directors suggested forming a committee to study the routes and determine which ones are not safe and then offering transportation to those along the unsafe routes. Pasquerilla expressed caution regarding that idea, since any criteria the committee uses to exclude some students might cause problems later.
“I want to be consistent,” Pasquerilla said.
The number of students who live within walking distance of the elementary and Neil Armstrong Middle schools is in the dozens, so the cost to offer busing to those children is negligible, since they can be picked up on existing bus routes. However, 218 students at the high school and Independence Middle School are within the walking radius. Buses on existing routes do not have the room for that many students, so new routes would have to be established.
Critics of the idea to offer bussing to students who otherwise could walk may argue that children have been walking to school for generations. But Bonnie Ballas of Belmont Avenue reminded the school board that there are far more cars on the road now than in decades past.
“It’s like a highway in the morning,” Nicole Warden said of Summit Street.
School officials also studied the feasibility of offering transportation to more day care centers and reported their findings to the board. The district only provides busing to day cares within each elementary school’s attendance zone. Last month, two parents asked the board to consider offering busing to other day care centers due to their children’s special needs.
Pasquerilla said it would cost an additional $91,000 a year to offer transportation to any day care in Bethel Park and an additional $62,000 a year to make midday runs for kindergarteners.
The school board also received more information about potential upgrades to the air conditioning system at the high school. The system does not seem to have adequate capacity to cool the building completely on hot days.
District officials are looking into options to add a chiller or revamp the entire system. Cost estimates should be available by next month.