When school started Monday there were more students walking to class with two in-town bus routes axed due to a shortage of drivers.
Parent Brian Woodward was irate when he found out his daughter, who attends Rim Country Middle School, would have to walk to school after the district told them they live in the “walk zone.”
“I don’t let my daughter walk five houses down to a friend’s house without me so there is no way I am going to let her walk through the gantlet of cars, sex offenders and bullies and hope that she makes it to school,” he said.
Woodward lives near the bowling alley and said his daughter would have to cross State Route 87 and walk along the busy roadway to reach the middle school — a 1.5-mile journey. She would also pass at least one home where a sex offender lives.
Woodward worried his daughter might get hit by a vehicle as the neighborhood streets are narrow and lack sidewalks.
Mayor Tom Morrissey said he started receiving calls from parents last week upset about the bus route changes.
“It is the school board’s responsibility to provide transportation for all students,” he said. “So this cutback of two routes is clearly unfair.”
Morrissey said he was working with Gila County and the school district on solutions and was open to ideas on how to recruit more bus drivers.
“As mayor, I do not have the power to act on this and it is frustrating because the folks who are affected pay the same taxes as those who get the transportation. I am continuing to raise this issue with a school board member, but so far have been unsuccessful,” he said. “What I have been told is that this issue cannot be resolved until next year. We still need to find a short-term solution and prevent it from ever happening again. I am not done with this.”
The school board earlier this year canceled the two bus routes when they could not find enough drivers. The district says it has struggled to recruit and keep qualified drivers. Issues with the position range from low pay, a stressful work environment and working a split shift.
Stan Rentz, the school district’s new superintendent, said the decision to cut the two routes was made before he started.
Still, when he heard about the changes he met with the new transportation manager Mark Henning and discussed ways to bus elementary age students to school so they don’t have to cross the highways.
They looked at the walk zone for Payson Elementary School and found there were children, some as young as 5, having to cross the highway.
“I am not comfortable with that,” he said.
He said Henning did a fantastic job figuring out how to get those students to school and they “cut out walking for nearly all PES students.”
He said there are still some 10 students who have to walk, but none of those students cross 87.
No Julia Randall Elementary School students are crossing the highway either.
But that leaves middle and high school students. Rentz said there are students from both of these schools that still have to cross the highway. He said they are advising parents to have students cross the Beeline using the crosswalks and take a path that keeps them on the sidewalks — when possible.
Rentz said they faced similar driver shortages in Georgia where he worked before coming to Payson.
Rentz said he is not sure when the school board will evaluate reinstating the bus routes, but it might be a year.
Arizona school districts must provide transportation to elementary students living more than one-mile from school and to middle and high school students who live more than 1.5 miles away. Rentz said the Payson School Board is trying to keep the walk zones to a mile.
“Walk zones are not a great thing, but it’s one of the only things we can do,” he said.
RCMS Principal Jennifer White said she had not personally received any complaints from parents.
“The bus change does not concern me, but we are working on supporting children safety in the parent pickup line,” she said.
Woodward, meanwhile, said he studied the walk zone map and found his property straddles the boundary line. The district agreed that his daughter could ride the bus because their property is on the cusp.