How far is too far for a kindergartner to walk to school?
That’s what some parents are asking after the elimination of several East Jackson bus stops from Teton County School District No. 1 bus service.
District officials say the changes are to comply with state regulations and reimbursements for transportation. But parents worry their young children won’t be safe walking where they say sidewalks aren’t great and traffic is increasing.
Wyoming law says students within 1 mile of an elementary school, 1.5 miles of a middle school and 2 miles of a high school should walk, assuming it’s safe.
Transportation outside those zones is funded by the state. But if a local school board decides it isn’t safe for students to walk — for example, crossing some areas of Broadway in town — exceptions can be granted and the state will continue to reimburse.
Because kindergartners and other younger students will now be attending Colter Elementary, three bus stops close to school will be added.
Because Jackson Elementary will have older students, too, four stops within that area will be removed.
And transportation will end for students living on private roads on Teton Pass.
Parents won’t be allowed to walk their students to a bus stop that still exists outside the walk zone because those stops are already at or near capacity.
Trustees and staff said the transportation office spent months evaluating whether some areas were safe to walk and had adequate sidewalks.
Assistant Superintendent Jeff Daugherty said the district is not changing its policy, but, rather, returning to the requirements of the state statutes. He said Transportation Director Ed Ahlum has been “put on notice” to anticipate transportation audits in the next year or two due to the “state’s financial dire straits.”
The Wyoming Legislature has talked about transportation being an area for potential cuts.
But parents in East Jackson say the bottom line of the district’s budget isn’t as important as their children’s safety.
“It is very frustrating to hear this news,” Honora Kerr, who has an incoming first-grader and a 3-year-old, told the board. “This is a change for many, many, many families. It’s going to be very difficult for us to get our kids to school and pick them up, and the safety question is a real, valid concern.”
Last year a parent was required to be present when a kindergartner got on or off the bus. Katherine Tomkinson, who has an incoming kindergartner and first-grader, said she found it to be a “massive discrepancy” that next year those same students would be required to walk home unattended.
Her son rode the bus every day last year, unless he was sick and needed to be picked up from school. Tomkinson views riding the bus as an “important part of childhood” and a “learning experience.”
She finds that bus services ensure that students get to school on time, and wondered who would be responsible if something happened to kids walking to school without bus service. After the school board meeting Tomkinson said she felt the majority of the board was “completely and totally out of touch.”
Winter and increasing traffic are other worries for parents.
“How many of you have 5-year-olds that you would let walk almost a mile in minus-22 degree temperatures at 8 a.m.?” Tomkinson asked the board. “I think it’s unreasonable to request that a child walk when the temperatures are below zero for a chunk of our winter.”
Tomkinson said any sidewalks the neighborhood has were “completely buried in snow and ice.”
Kerr said a common sentiment in Jackson is that “if my kids did it, yours can do it, too.” But times are changing, she said, and density and traffic are increasing.
“It’s easy to pretend that change isn’t happening,” she said. “The school board doesn’t seem to get what the ramifications are.”
Trustee Keith Gingery attempted to bring forward a vote to revive the East Jackson bus route, but only Trustee Joe Larrow, who said he wasn’t comfortable with the changes “in his gut,” supported the motion.
Staff said a driver would cost $50,000 a year and bus maintenance and fuel $30,000 without a new bus. With a new bus the route would cost between $130,000 and $140,000 for the first year.
Trustee Bill Scarlett said that “as a staff, this isn’t something we are delighted to bring to you.” But he worried that if the board continues to provide transportation in those areas the state may come back and ask to be repaid.
Trustees Annie Band and Kate Mead fired back against the notion that they didn’t understand where parents were coming from. Both said their children walked to school.
“No one on this board or staff will ever do anything intentionally that will compromise the safety of our students,” Band said.
Mead said drawing a walk zone line might seem arbitrary, but that’s how it’s done in districts all across the nation.
“I just want people to understand that there has to be a line drawn somewhere,” she said.
Possible implications of fewer bus stops and expanded walk zone are traffic and congestion at the drop-off and pickup areas of elementary schools if parents chose to drive their kids instead.
“We expect it to be fairly pronounced in the beginning of the year,” Daugherty said.
The changes, parents said, were difficult to grapple with.
“It’s hard to swallow when they say they have $7.5 million in cash reserves,” Kerr said.
Overall, they say it fits into a picture of constant change in the public schools. Kerr is a dual-immersion parent who finds the lack of consistency overwhelming.
“It’s not helping ease this difficult and stressful transition during reconfiguration,” she said. “We already feel like we are at the mercy of what they decide: the location of Munger Mountain Elementary School, choosing that for a dual school. At this point it feels like for us, at least in East Jackson, that they are hanging us out to dry.”