Plan to cut school bus service under fire in Madera

It won't be uphill both ways, but come this fall, hundreds of high school students in Madera may have to walk or bike to school each day -- some of them from more than 10 miles away.

To help plug a $13 million budget gap, Madera Unified School District wants to take the unusual step of cutting bus service for high school students. Many of the 1,000 or so students who would be affected live in rural parts of the district and would have to walk along dusty roads often used by large, produce-hauling trucks.

It's a possibility that upsets many parents and teachers.

"Just imagine yourself on a foggy morning getting to school when it's pitch black out there," said Leah Tompsett, who lives 13 miles from Madera South High School where three of her children attend. "I'm just scared."

Lynn Cogdill, a community activist in Madera, is so frustrated with the proposal that he is hosting a meeting at his home today where he expects 150 parents, teachers and bus drivers to show up and try to find an alternative plan. District board member Michael Salvador will be there to answer questions.

"We're in uncharted territory," Salvador said Friday, adding he's eager to hear suggestions for how to solve the budget crisis.

Madera Unified appears to be the only large school district in the central San Joaquin Valley that wants to eliminate high school transportation. Fresno, Central and Clovis unifieds said they are not considering such cuts.

Madera Unified is not planning on cutting bus service for elementary or middle schools.

In February, the district's board of trustees approved a tentative budget that, if finalized, would lay off dozens of teachers and other district employees, close Dixieland Elementary, and severely reduce adult school funding. It would also cut high school bus service -- a savings of about $600,000.

Frustration among teachers and parents over the cuts has been intensified by the board's decision in December to award a new contract to Superintendent John Stafford that included benefits equivalent to a 9% raise.

A final budget won't be approved until June. The district is hoping the unions will agree to concessions to help save money. But Salvador acknowledged that the reductions, including the elimination of bus service, are strong possibilities.

"Anything is possible now," he said.

Spokesman Jake Bragonier said that about 1,000 students -- about 20% of those who attend the district's two high schools -- take a bus to school. He acknowledged that many students live in rural areas and are largely from low-income families that may have one car, or none.

"We're talking about rural families," said Cogdill, the community advocate. "If the father has to be out in the field, what's going to happen to those kids stuck walking?"

One possible solution is to charge parents a fee if they want their children to use the bus. That could be a challenge for many cash-strapped families, but it's an idea that Tompsett said the district should seriously consider.

"I think they need to think outside the box to find money," she said.