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Parents Blast Plan to Cut Free Busing : Vow to Fight School Board

Times Staff Writer

A group of parents, angered by proposals that would cut back on free school busing and force their children to walk several miles to school, are banding together to try to stop the Saddleback Valley Unified School District board from implementing the plan.

About a dozen parents confronted board members at their meeting Tuesday night with concerns about safety and finding alternative transportation for their children. They convinced the board to postpone cutbacks in bus service for the current school year.

But now their goal is to halt the board from deciding on April 4 to increase the minimum walking distance for students next fall.

“We’re trying to form a coalition to gain some community support and look into ways to make them (the board) listen to what we’re saying and take our concerns into account,” Betsy Arnow of El Toro said.

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Arnow said the group is hoping to get legal advice next week on how to get an injunction to stop any bus service cutbacks.

Parents complained that they waited about 2 1/2 hours to address the board and that board members appeared to have already decided to go ahead with their cutback plan.

“I thought I’d be able to voice my opinion and have a chance to be heard, but it seems to me that you had no intention of listening to anything we have to say,” Kathleen Sandhaus of Laguna Hills told board members.

Several parents claimed that the board gave only a few days’ notice about public hearings held last week to inform parents of the changes.

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Arnow said that at a public hearing March 2 an administrator in charge of transportation said the district did not have time to circulate information regarding which bus stops would be affected by cutbacks.

“You say that you want to have extensive communication with the community,” El Toro resident Len Nawrocki told the board. “But how can you do that if you haven’t told half of the community about it?”

Board member R. Kent Hann told parents that the board carefully looked into the bus service and had “taken a firm line on the busing issue. . . . Our preference is that school isn’t taught in the buses but in the classroom. And it has always been our policy not to take money from educational services to put into busing.”

“Well, what’s the purpose of having classrooms and educational programs if you won’t have any kids attending them because they can’t get to school?” Linda Mangold of Portola Hills snapped back.

Most of the students affected by the board’s plan are ninth- to 12th-graders who would have to find alternative transportation to class if they live 3.5 miles or less from their schools. However, the minimum walking distance for all students would be raised.

Many parents said the district is responsible for providing transportation for their children, who would be walking along unlit streets or major roads to get to school. And the parents said the district should provide bus service at any cost.

“If we got the extra money on transportation, we’d spend it on transportation, but the state is not giving us any extra money, so where are we going to get the money from for this?” board member Dore J. Gilbert said. “As long as we have shrinking funds there’s no way we as a district will take money out of our classrooms to pay for busing.”

The district charged $135 per student for bus service to and from school for 5 years. But last December a state directive barred school districts from charging fees for bus service after an appellate court ruled that they are unconstitutional. The district is expected to lose about $600,000 in parent fees.

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“All I hear is we don’t have the money for a $600,000 deficit which represents only seven-tenths of a budget,” Nawrocki told the board. ". . . I think the safety of our children is . . . more important than seven-tenths of a budget.”


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