By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At 2:55 on Monday afternoon, minutes before the school bell rings to dismiss classes at Plano's Rosemary Haggar Elementary School, Joy Ramsier, suburban mother of two, takes to the streets. Armed with clipboard and pen, she mans her post near the school property line, under the shade of a sprawling tree.
"Do you want to sign our petition?" asks Ramsier, approaching other parents as they scurry from parked cars to the school doors to collect their children.
Ramsier and other outraged parents have organized a political protest to fight what they consider the invidious busing policies of the Plano Independent School District. Only it's not the kind of busing battle that historically revolves around parents who don't want their kids to ride them. These days in Plano, parents are complaining because their children can't take the bus. That is, unless they pay $35 a month.
School started in Plano on August 3, but the uproar began weeks earlier when district administrators unveiled their revised busing plan. In a July 6, 1998, letter to parents, PISD superintendent Doug Otto explained: "Because of serious budgetary constraints, the district has...been forced to revisit our guidelines for providing hazardous bus routes based on financial feasibility."
Specifically, Otto announced the district intended to stop busing children who had previously been transported to school in district vehicles at some 23 institutions. Under the new guidelines, children would not be bused unless they lived more than two miles from the school or faced hazardous conditions on their way to school.
But the district then redefined what it considers hazardous conditions. Such conditions apply only to routes where there are active railroad tracks, creeks without bridges, or tollroad travel. No longer would the district define major intersections as hazardous if crossing guards were available to assist students. Joy Ramsier's kids as well as others will never again be bused through the major intersection of Frankford and Campbell, because a crossing guard is on site. They might just have to walk.
In his letter, Otto blamed cutbacks on "the infamous Robin Hood recapture legislation which is so negatively affecting our school district." He said that the PISD would have to send $37 million in local funds to the state this year. That reallocation has "obligated us to cut and redirect funding from many necessary programs and services," he wrote. "We are calling upon parents to assist in ensuring the safety of their children by carpooling or walking their children to school."
If parents whose children have been deprived of their bus service want it back, the superintendent offered them the option of participating in Plano's "fare busing" program. For $35 a month per child, the district would provide a bus--assuming, of course, that one was available.
For Ramsier, the offer meant she would be forced to pay $70 a month to get the busing service her children had received free of charge the previous year. "That's a lot to pay when you pay taxes for those buses," says Ramsier.
In the past few weeks, Ramsier has collected 150 signatures for her petition, asking the district to reinstate the bus routes. Other parents at other Plano schools are mounting similar campaigns.
PISD associate superintendent Jim Damm expects the disappointed parents to appear en masse at a school board meeting scheduled this week. "We'll have a lengthy evening," Damm predicts.
For the district, the cutbacks are expected to save some $300,000, about 7.5 percent of a $4 million transportation budget, says Damm. The district buses 20,000 children in 150 vehicles to 50 different locations.
PISD has reinstated some routes--at fewer than a dozen schools--where the administration has been unable to hire crossing guards to police major intersections.
With the district promoting the fare busing program, 344 children have applied to participate, and 67 students had actually started riding on the school vehicles as of last week. Although 30 more will start the program by September 1, Damm concedes many others have yet to be accommodated.
"Sounds like they may be trying to subsidize their transportation budget," says Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the Dallas Independent School District, which doesn't charge its students to ride buses. PISD's Damm says other districts have used fare busing, but admits the Plano program is unique in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
Damm doesn't expect anything to happen immediately as a result of the school board meeting. Instead, he believes the PISD board will listen to objections from parents and recommend the staff make changes only after further study.
But for Ramsier and her comrades, the public hearing provides them with an opportunity to make their case--and back it up with disturbing statistics.
Ramsier says she has learned from the Dallas Police Department that some 20 citations were issued to speeding drivers at the Frankford intersection in less than a half-hour period. The overworked crossing guard who currently serves those streets has already asked for a transfer because the worker regards the spot as too troublesome.
For this Plano mom, the whole busing fight has a depressingly deja vu aspect to it.
In 1995, when Rosemary Haggar Elementary School first opened, the district had not initially provided a bus for her neighborhood. Ramsier recalls that, at the time, she and other parents asked Superintendent Otto to come and see for himself the hazardous traffic patterns in her neighborhood. He did, and shortly thereafter, she received the bus service her kids needed.
"Three years later," says Ramsier sadly, "it's like that never happened. What's it going to take--having a kid get hit?