Safer routes to school?

When Hays CISD announced in April it would cut bus service to Elm Grove Elementary come August, some parents in the Garlic Creek and Cullen Country neighborhoods of Buda were upset. Many moved into the developments thinking bus service was available.

Others planned alternatives, such as dropping off/picking up their children or forming a car pool with neighbors. Some will allow their children to walk or bike to school, which was the intent of recent improvements to the walking route, funded by grant money under the Safe Routes to School program.

But for those whose situations hamper alternatives, the issue was a flashpoint, particularly when the district announced service to Cullen Country would be reinstated, because the distance is more than two miles from the school. Portions of a letter from Hays CISD are at the bottom.

The letter also explained how the district will address parent concerns. 

“For added safety, the district will provide two new crossing guards for students walking to Elm Grove from Garlic Creek,” it said. “One will be stationed at the new pedestrian bridge and one will be stationed closer to the campus to help students cross the residential streets next to the school.”

The district will also install a street light at the bridge.

For Garlic Creek residents like Lindsey Haroldsen, David Young, Freddy Herrera and Lindsey Castillo, the issue is upsetting. A small group of parents have been communicating with Superintendent Mike McKie and other district officials via email.

“We would not have moved into this neighborhood [had we known about bus service being cut]. We found other people in same situation,” Haroldsen said in a recent phone interview.

Real estate agents may not know bus service is ending, she said. Or they may be purposefully not disclosing the information. Either way, bus service was among the many selling points to buying a home in Garlic Creek.

In an email from McKie to Haroldsen, he wrote, “We use the rules established by state law and policy to guide our decisions. Even if our school board designated this as a hazardous route, the state would not recognize it as such. The proposed change is not being made for monetary purposes. Rather, it is to meet the definition in law and policy. Due to the completion of the pedestrian bridge, your subdivision is now considered within the two mile walk zone just like many other subdivisions in Hays CISD.”

“Forty percent of our more than 17,000 students safely arrive to our schools daily, without bus service,” he continued. “I see no evidence presented that there are unique safety hazards or challenges in the Garlic Creek subdivision.”

Haroldsen has a child starting kindergarten in the fall and another in second grade. She does not believe her five-year-old is prepared to walk the nearly two miles to get to school. 

The route is not exactly a straight shot, according to Haroldsen. Students would also have to walk through the Elm Grove neighborhood, crossing several streets along the way, to get to the school, which opens at 7:20 a.m. Classes begin at 7:40 a.m. Early drop-off is not available at this time, though the district may investigate the cost and feasibility of such an alternative, including a fee-based model similar to after school care. However, they would have to offer that at every campus.

Buda Police Chief Bo Kidd said while he believes the route is basically safe, he can understand why parents are concerned about younger children walking to Elm Grove. He also said his department would communicate with Hays CISD officials about how they might work together to meet the needs of the residents, which may include additional patrol officers in the neighborhoods during the hours before and after school.

“We’ll do what we can with our limited resources,” he said. 

As a caregiver in her home, some days Haroldsen has six children under age seven. To test the route, she rounded up the crew and walked to Elm Grove.

“It took me 46 minutes one way,” she said.

And that was on a relatively warm, dry day. 

Her situation may be unique, but she said there are other parents who don’t have other options.

The group also expressed concern at the additional vehicle traffic that will be at the school, creating a new hazard. Kidd said his officers would monitor the additional traffic to determine if it creates a hazard.

Garlic Creek residents say it’s not just the distance of the walk that upsets them. After a recent heavy rainfall, neighborhood residents said the sidewalks and grass median on either side of the entrance to the bridge were completely covered with water.

“It was at least several inches deep,” Haroldsen said. “I don’t want my children walking through a deep puddle to get to school.”

McKie saw the photos and told parents the area did not appear to be impassable, but he sent the photos to the Buda city engineer who worked on the improvements.

While most parents agreed the route isn’t hazardous, they don’t consider it safe, particularly for young children. From the early morning in darkness during the late fall and winter months, to wildlife along the route to water logged sidewalks, Haroldsen et al provided the litany to McKie and the board.

McKie’s emailed response indicates that while he empathizes with the plight of parents, the district would no longer receive funding from TEA to transport students in Garlic Creek.

“The concerns expressed by parents do not meet the requirements of the Texas Education Code to declare the route hazardous in terms of receiving funding for bus service,” he said. 

That appears to be the sticking point: who decides if a route is hazardous?

TEA defines it as: “A hazardous condition exists where no walkway is provided and children must walk along or cross a freeway or expressway, an underpass, an overpass or a bridge, an uncontrolled major traffic artery, an industrial or commercial area, or another comparable condition.”

Under that language, a walking path, pedestrian bridge and neighborhood sidewalks do not meet the criteria.

So are some Garlic Creek parents unwilling to find workable solutions? The group vocalizing the most concern about the issue said they have discussed alternatives, but in some cases, they aren’t practical or affordable.

Yet from the district standpoint, neither is reinstating bus service to a community that is less than two miles from a school and not hazardous.

Savoy summed up Hays CISD’s position in an emailed response, “Here’s the core root of the problem. Our Board’s policy CNA (Local) says ‘The District shall not provide transportation to any student for whom it does not receive state transportation funds, except as required by law.’…So, providing a bus to Garlic Creek violates district policy. If that policy were to change, it could not change just for Garlic Creek. Changes would apply to all areas in the district in similar walk zones. There are 15 of them. Change the policy and you could quickly run into a $1 million-plus expense.”


Why did bus service go away?

Under a grant call Safe Routes to Schools, the district and the city of Buda applied for funding to build walking paths and a bridge, which would allow students to walk or bike ride to school. 

Bus service was needed prior to the repairs because though most homes were less than the requisite two miles, the distance set by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the route to the school was designated as hazardous under TEA code.

The only way to walk was on FM 967 and FM 1626, both lacking sidewalks and both handling high traffic volume daily.

Improvements with Safe Routes to School money allowed the route to be deemed non-hazardous, and therefore walkable. Under TEA rules, school districts no longer receive funding for bus service when students live less than two miles away and the route is not considered hazardous.

But here’s the rub: many parents consider the walking route unsafe for a variety of reasons — none of which match the TEA definition of hazardous.

The Hays CISD letter to parents said, in part, “After consulting with [TEA] and further investigation, the district will be able to receive funding to operate buses for the Cullen Country subdivision. This is a reversal of the earlier announcement for this subdivision.”

“Though the official walk-zone in Cullen Country is less than 2 miles when measuring the walking route; it is more than two miles using the closest public roadway,” the letter said. “The state transportation funding formula will allow us to use the roadway measurement, count this route as one that exceeds the 2 mile maximum walk zone, and receive funding to run bus service. This is a unique situation in Hays CISD. There are no other known areas that are less than 2 miles by foot, but more than 2 miles by car.”

The letter also explained why service to Garlic Creek would still be discontinued.

“Unfortunately, the district will not offer bus service to the Garlic Creek subdivision. The distance to the school is less than 2 miles both by foot and by car. Additionally, the concerns expressed by parents do not meet the requirements of the Texas Education Code to declare the route hazardous in terms of receiving funding for bus service. However, Hays CISD recognizes and understands the concerns that have been presented.”

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