Suzanne Gomez is afraid for her two sons. The Portola Hills resident worries that the Saddleback Unified School District will make a decision at tonight’s school board meeting that would mean that her teen-age sons would have to walk about 3.5 miles each day, down an unlit thoroughfare--bordered by a ravine and a bike path--to get to school.
“For someone around my age, walking around there (El Toro Road, between Marguerite Parkway and Live Oak Canyon Road) during the day is OK, but for little children to walk there, even teen-agers, there’s a chance they might be molested or even killed,” she said.
Gomez is one of several parents in the Portola Hills area, and within the school district, concerned over the district’s proposal to cut back its free home-to-school transportation. The plan would create a minimum walking distance, requiring students who live within a designated number of miles to walk to school instead of riding the bus.
The decision came after a state directive last December barred school districts from charging bus fees. The state order was based on a ruling by a state appellate court in Ventura County last May that declared bus fees in public schools unconstitutional.
The district had been charging parents $135 a year per student, for about 5 years, to bring students to and from school, said Larry Callison, director of transportation for the district. Parents’ fees brought in $600,000 to subsidize the $1 million it cost the district for the bus service, he said. The state provides the district with $400,000 for regular bus service.
Since the $600,000 in parent fees will be lost, Callison said, “if transportation is to continue, there has to be money taken out of the general fund or a cut in transportation to students.”
The district already provides free home-to-school transportation to special education students and has after-school bus service for students in extracurricular activities, Callison said. Parents pay $25 per year for the after-school service.
The district currently requires a minimum walking distance of three-fourths of a mile for kindergartners through sixth-graders, 1 mile for seventh- and eighth-graders and 2 miles for ninth- to 12th-graders. Under the new plan, ninth- through 12th-graders who live less than 3.5 miles from the district schools could not ride the bus.
The plan would also require junior high students who live within 2.5 miles, elementary school students living within 2 miles and kindergarten and first-graders within 1 mile of school to find alternative means of getting to class each day.
Callison said the school board proposed Monday afternoon to implement the new distance standards in the next school year. But there will still be a transportation problem.
"(My husband) and I work every day and sometimes long hours,” Gomez said. “I couldn’t guarantee that every single day we’d be at home at 3 to pick the kids up at school.”
The district held four public hearings at various schools in the district last week to inform parents of the their plans, but Gomez said officials waited until the last minute to inform parents of the changes. At a recent meeting at the Trabuco Hills High school, Gomez said several parents were dissatisfied with the district’s decision and were concerned about their children’s safety.
“On (El Toro Road) if a guy drove by and said, ‘Hey little kid, get in my car,’ where would the kid run--down a 2-mile road and try and stop a car traveling at 50 m.p.h. to say, ‘Please help me’?” Gomez said. “I don’t think so.”
Callison said the district is first implementing “the minimum walking distances, and once that is in place our next important factor will be the safety of our students.” But, he said, the transportation issue has posed problems that the district must handle first.
The state directive has also caused other school districts in the county to alter their transportation services. Both Orange and Irvine unified school districts have suspended collecting fees from parents for home-to-school bus service and are considering creating minimum walking distance standards to limit the number of students using the buses.
While the number of students using the Orange Unified buses has not risen substantially this year, Assistant Supt. John Perry expects the number to increase by 1,500 students next September.
Irvine Deputy Supt. Paul Reid said a coalition of 22 school districts throughout the state plans to pursue legal action against the state Department of Education regarding the state’s order last December of whether or not the court in Ventura has the right to force a decision for all state school districts. The coalition, called Transportation Fee Coalition, is expected to be prepared to take some form of legal action against the state’s department within a month, Reid said.
The Saddleback Unified School District board will meet tonight at 7 at the district board room at 25631 Diseno Drive in Mission Viejo.