By Curt Yeomans
Forest Park resident ,Christina Ramirez, said she was in disbelief last week when she received a letter from Clayton County Public Schools, informing her that school buses would not transport her son, a seventh-grader at Forest Park Middle School, to school this year.
The school system is now enforcing a policy which stipulates that children who live within a mile and a half of their schools will not receive bus service. The policy has been on the books for years, but it has also been several years since the district has enforced it. District officials have pointed to a funding crunch as the reason why they now have to enforce the policy, and they expect to save approximately $4.26 million.
Ramirez's family has lived in Clayton County for 22 years, she said. Her children, including a daughter who is a freshman at Forest Park High School, have grown up in the county's school system, and she said they never had to walk to school before. So, when the letter from School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson arrived on Aug. 3, the mother was taken aback by what it said.
"I thought 'They had to be kidding,'" Ramirez said. "It's ridiculous that they are doing this when parents were given no opportunity to have a say in the matter, or to, at least, make arrangements for getting their kids to school. They had the entire summer to tell us about this."
Ramirez is not alone in her criticism of the school system's last-minute announcement that it would cut bus service to 4,600 students, made just days before the 2010-2011 school year began.
Jackson said he's received complaints from parents, and some people are denouncing the enforcement of the policy as "crazy," "insane," "ridiculous," and "messed up" on a "Clayton County School System" page on the social networking web site, Facebook.
"It was just handed down, without any input from the parents, leaving parents who have to work, and don't have time to take their children to school without time to plan," Ramirez said. "Now they are struggling to find some way for their children to get to school ... There's no public transportation, either, so you're basically stuck walking."
Jackson said he is aware that parents are not happy about the school system's decision. Between the screaming and the profanity pouring through the telephone lines, he said, the parents are making it clear that they want the bus service restored.
"I've been cursed out over the phone by parents of Jackson Elementary School students, living in the Walnut Grove Apartment complex, that is right behind my office, who are saying it's not safe for their children to walk to school," the chief operations officer said.
Ramirez said her daughter does get bus transportation to Forest Park High School, but the mother is worried about her son's safety, because he has to walk a mile to, and from, Forest Park Middle School. She said she is concerned about high volumes of fast-moving cars on the streets near her home, and she is also worried about how the heat will affect her son's asthma. Her concern, she said, is her son could faint from heat exhaustion, or have an asthma attack while he is walking to, or from, school.
"I work an hour away, so it's not like I can go pick him up, or be around the corner in case something happens to him" while he is walking, Ramirez said.
She said she has two nephews, a kindergartner and a first-grader, at Fountain Elementary School, that she is also worried about. Their parents are walking with them for the nearly mile-long walk they have to make, but the trip takes them through some dangerous areas.
"They have to walk past a park where there is a lot of drug, and gang activity that takes place, so it's not safe for adults, or children to be walking in that area," she said.
But, despite the criticisms, Jackson indicated the district is not likely to vacate its enforcement of the policy right now. "Everyone is going to have to realize that they've got to give a little right now," Jackson said.
That includes the school system, the chief operations officer said.
In some hazardous areas, Jackson said bus stops are being added to some existing school bus routes to pick up some of the children who would otherwise have to walk through those areas. "Students who live in those areas are being re-directed to nearby bus routes, although some of them do have to walk away from the school to catch a bus," Jackson said.
"In some cases, children only have to walk a couple of blocks, and other children only have to walk one street over to catch a bus.
One parent from the Birchwalk subdivision, on the eastern edge of Riverdale, alerted the Clayton News Daily to one potential hazard -- a sharp, 90-degree, hillside curve on Cardinal Lane, in Jonesboro, behind Callaway Elementary School. Children from the subdivision have to walk through the curve to get to Callaway Elementary, and its neighbor, Kendrick Middle School.
A reporter checked out the curve in his car, late Wednesday afternoon, and drove through the area twice; the first time coming from the school, and the second time, coming from the Birchwalk subdivision. The reporter had trouble, both times, seeing around the curve because of a heavily wooded area that runs up to the west edge of the curve.
Jackson said the district plans to address the school bus issue publicly, but not for another week and a half. He said he is scheduled to give an update on the transportation issue to the Clayton County Board of Education, at its work session on Aug. 23.
In the meantime, he said, parents are still encouraged to call his office to report hazards that pose a threat to walking children. To contact Jackson about the transportation issue, call (770) 473-2819.