School board OKs shorter walking distances for students

The Board of Education on Monday night approved a plan to reduce walking distances to school for Milford students for the 2016-17 school year — meaning more will be eligible to ride the bus next school year.

But the decision was not without some dissention about the plan, which will cost about $288,000. Some board members said they felt it was too much to spend.

For students in middle school the revised transportation policy reduces the walking distance from 1.5 to 1 mile; for high schoolers it goes from 2 miles to 1.5 miles, and for elementary school students the distance stays the same at 1 mile.

Students who live beyond those distances will be able to ride the school bus.

The cost associated with the change is $288,000. It would allow another 250 students to ride the bus: those students are currently walkers.

Walking distances drew criticism from parents last year when the board decided to more strictly enforce walking distances and take students off the bus who had been riding.

Those changes stemmed from 2012, when several board members were focused on cutting transportation dollars to make room for what they saw as more direct education spending.

The efforts did cut costs: Chief Operations Officer James Richetelli Jr. said the schools have saved more than $165,000 per year over the last two years on various transportation reductions.

The current transportation budget, not including special education transportation, is $1,985,654. That breaks down to 125 bus runs and more than 1,005 bus stops each school day.

This year, the Milford Board of Education transports 4,180 students to school by bus. The cost per bus is $46,590, and is expected to increase to $47,985 in 2016-17.

Board member Jennifer Federico started board discussion Monday, saying, “As many parents have reminded us, the vision is to prepare students to achieve at the highest level.”

She said that when students have to walk 40 minutes or more to school, most often with a backpack and sometimes in bad weather, they are not ready to learn when they get to school.

“We need to shorten the walking distance for high school and middle school,” Federico said.

She said that during a recent presentation, the board was told that 24 other districts in the state have shorter walking distances than Milford has.

Board Chairman Susan Glennon said she has struggled with the issue. She said she agrees a two mile walk may be too far, but she said she believes the board addressed that with its “opt in” provision.

According to the provision, “The program provides for resident students who are presently not eligible for school transportation under [the transportation] policy, to ride the bus, if approved, under limited and specific conditions, starting no earlier than October 1 of each school year.”

“In my laymen’s terms, a student who is not eligible for transportation, but who lives on the fringes of the distance to be eligible, can apply for a ride on a bus that has a bus stop near his home,” Glennon explained later.  “Certain conditions apply and if approved, the seat on the bus becomes available to the student beginning October 1.”

Glennon said she had concerns about spending about a quarter million dollars. She also said that while the school board has obligations to teach children, parents have obligations also, and some of those may be making sure their children get to school safely.

Board member Dr. Heidi Gold-Dworkin agreed with Glennon, saying that she thinks exercise is important for today’s youngsters and therefore walking distances should not be reduced.

Anthony Piselli said he was disappointed to hear the dissension, arguing that walking to school is not voluntary exercise because it’s a necessity. He also said that ensuring safety for students, especially in the winter months, is paramount and that he supported the walking distance reductions “wholeheartedly.”

Michael DeGrego added that if one student got hurt walking to school, costs to ensure safety could escalate dramatically.

John DeRosa had somewhat mixed views, saying that he wants the city to help ensure safety by enforcing sidewalk shoveling laws and addressing other safety issues that lie between a student’s home and their school. But at this time, he said he supports spending the additional money to shorten walking distances.

The board voted 5-4 to approve the shorter walking distances, with Claire Casey, Gold-Dworkin, Earl Whiskeyman and Glennon voting against it. Board member C. Robert Satti Jr. was not at the meeting and therefore did not vote.