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Fewer Buses This Fall: More Hartford Students Will Walk To School

By BILL LEUKHARDT

June 29, 2009

HARTFORD - More city students will be walking to class and fewer riding buses this fall because school officials are cutting $4 million from the $23 million transportation account to close a school budget gap and spare classrooms and teaching staff from cuts.

Changes include reinstating longer walk-to-school routes eliminated a year ago, training parent-volunteers to shepherd groups of walkers to schools, keeping more special education students in the district for classes and increasing bus usage from two rounds of trips daily to three.

"We've been working on this day and night for months," Alexander Nardone, Hartford schools' chief operating officer, said Friday of the plan for the district, which has 47 schools and slightly more than 22,000 pupils. "The money saved will go into classrooms and instruction. That's the reason for this."

A report was presented June 24 to the school board's finance committee about the plans. Nardone said school officials will work hard this summer to make sure parents, students and staff understand the changes being made.

The shorter walking distances implemented last school year by the board increased ridership by 2,798 students and added $4 million to busing costs, according to the report. Starting July 15, the school transportation department should be able to give parents and guardians details on how the changes will affect students at any address, Nardone said.

By then, the department will have already launched its efforts to publicize the new schedules, he said.

In an e-mail last week, school system spokesman David Medina described the plan as a way to "use fewer buses more efficiently."

Walking distances will remain a half-mile for the youngest students in grades K through 2; 1 mile for students in grades 3 through 5; 1.5 miles for pupils in grades 6 through 8; and 2 miles for high school students, he said.

A program called Safe Routes to School will use trained parent-volunteers to escort walkers to their schools in the morning and walk them back home at the end of the day, Medina wrote.

The current system of two sets of bus schedules will be expanded to using buses in "a three-tier bus schedule with a corresponding change in bell times to be consistent with the tiers. Tier 1 is 7:45 a.m.; Tier 2 is 8:15 a.m. and Tier 3 is 8:45 a.m.," he said.

A new in-district special education program will reduce out-of-district placements, cutting both transportation costs and tuition budgets. And the decrease in buses will mean fewer bus monitors, Medina said.

Communication is definitely crucial to success or failure, board member Sharon Patterson-Stallings said.

"That was one of the things we asked at the meeting. We have to notify every parent whose children will be affected. We need to make robo-calls, write letters, talk to community groups, use the neighborhood newspapers," said Patterson-Stallings, a mother of five and grandmother of 10 who remembers her efforts to get her own children to school. "This is a very ambitious plan. There's a lot of children who won't be on a bus this fall, even though their parents think their children will be riding the bus to school."

Milly Arciniegas, president of the PTO Presidents' Council, said the school system has a tough job ahead to adequately inform families. Parents who have taken advantage of a city program allowing them to pick a specific school for a child to attend could be very upset if the bus service they were counting on evaporates, she said.

"Transportation is a huge issue in the city because of safety. Parents want their children to be safe," Arciniegas said. "We don't think eliminating a bus is fair, but we do understand we're facing a $4 million deficit and this is the place to find that money."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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