Hope Conroy likes to say she has a lot of kids--59 of them this year, to be exact.
That's how many children Conroy, a crossing guard for Ventura's Montalvo School, helps guide past whizzing cars and barreling trucks at the corner of Bristol Road and Katherine Avenue each morning.
It's not in her job description, but she also tries to make sure the students don't fight, are clothed properly and are in their classrooms before the bell rings at 8:05.
"Hurry up!" she scolded two young boys as they lagged behind one recent morning. "You know the gate closes at 8:15!"
Conroy is one of at least eight crossing guards across Ventura County whose jobs are threatened because of a new state law. At the height of last summer's budget wranglings in Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill allowing counties to stop paying for crossing guards in unincorporated areas.
Supervisors of cash-strapped Ventura County took advantage of the change, voting in July to drop $33,000 in funding for crossing-guard programs at five schools. Since then, school districts in Ojai and Ventura along with the city of Thousand Oaks have reluctantly picked up the tab for crossing guards in their areas. Camarillo school officials have adopted a volunteer crossing-guard program to save money.
But educators and city officials say there is no guarantee they will continue providing the guards next year. They intend to lobby county supervisors to pay at least part of the costs.
"We don't want to abandon the children, but we can't do everything as a school district," said Assistant Supt. Howard Hamilton of the Pleasant Valley Elementary School District. "At some point, you have to draw the line."
The affected locations besides Montalvo School are Walnut and Madrona elementary schools near Thousand Oaks; Camarillo Heights School near Camarillo, and Meiners Oaks and Mira Monte schools in the Ojai Valley.
Conroy, 59, has guarded the same corner in Montalvo for 15 years. She said the value of crossing guards is sometimes lost as officials squabble over who will pay for them.
Although there never has been an accident involving schoolchildren at her corner, there have been several near-collisions as drivers speed down Bristol Road, Conroy said.
"One time I was in the middle of the crosswalk and a car sped by and knocked the sign out of my hand," she said.
Doris Pihlaja, a secretary at Montalvo School since 1979, said Conroy does more than usher kids across the street. "She'll try to keep fights down and hurry them to school," Pihlaja said. "Whatever she can do to help.
"There is a very strong sense of community in Montalvo, and Hope seems to embody that sense of stability and community," she said.
Lewis Travis, who helps students navigate the corner of Ruth Drive and Wendy Drive in Newbury Park, said crossing guards are essential at busy intersections. In the month since classes began at nearby Walnut School, he has already seen two fender-benders at his corner.
"If I had young children, I wouldn't want them crossing a street like this," he said.
Motorists often ignore the 35-m.p.h. speed limit, and frequently get annoyed when Travis heads out in the middle of traffic to let kids cross. On Tuesday, a man in a work truck shouted obscenities at Travis as he ushered a stream of children across Wendy Drive.
"People can get tense sometimes," he said with a grin. "You just have to let it go."
Travis, 53, said he took the $7.76-an-hour job to make extra money after he retired from his job with the post office. But he has grown to view it as more than a way to supplement his income.
"Most of the kids are very nice and polite," he said.
While guards like Conroy and Travis continue to do their jobs on the streets, school administrators and city officials say they will be working behind the scenes to secure funding for them.
Traditionally, counties and cities have been responsible for traffic safety, educators say. It doesn't make sense to shift that burden to schools, they say.
Besides taking on the burden of paying guards' salaries, the school districts and Thousand Oaks could become targets for lawsuits should a problem arise at one of the guarded intersections, officials said. The liability issue could cost the schools districts and the city thousands of dollars in increased insurance premiums, authorities said.
"In this litigious society, one has to be worried about liability in everything you do," said Robert Smith, assistant superintendent for the county schools office. "If I was a school district, I would be fighting this (change) tooth and nail."
Linda Sheridan, the secretary at Walnut School, said she is relieved that Thousand Oaks has agreed to pay for a guard, at least temporarily. Wendy Drive is a very busy street, and too many motorists don't pay attention to what they're doing, she said.
"I've heard screeches there several times," she said. "Imagine what it would be like if kids were crossing themselves."