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Jordan ponders a cut in bus-route funding

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The fast-growing Jordan School District has a tough decision to make: how much responsibility to take for students who make their way to schools on routes deemed "hazardous."A district transportation committee has recommended parents take on this responsibility themselves.

The committee has recommended the district phase out funding for 130 "ineligible" school bus routes, known more commonly as "hazardous" routes, for the 1997-1998 school year, and instead use the money to buy bus trips for student activities and field trips.

The Jordan Board of Education will vote on the issue tonight.

"The bottom line is that people need to look at how their tax dollars are spent, and maybe providing (transportation) for your own child should be looked at, too," said Ron Sing, who is not on the special transportation committee but supervises bus service for the district's 73,000 students.

The district has $600,000 to $700,000 each year with which it can buy new school buses, pay for these "ineligible" routes or fund bus travel for student activities.

The transportation committee's recommendation illustrates a philosophical change in focus away from district-supported transportation.

Because individual schools usually pay their own transportation costs for field trips, the switch could allow schools to spend that money in the classroom instead, Sing said.

"Maybe (students in the district) can be better served by using the money in other places," he said.

Student transportation has always been a sticky issue in the Jordan School District.

Communities that make up the district - West Jordan, South Jordan, Riverton, Sandy, Draper and Bluffdale - are growing. There are new subdivisions, new roads and building construction on top of roadwork that arrived with I-15 renovation this spring.

In some cases, traffic, growth and construction conditions make a route dangerous enough to provide bus service for students.

The state pays for many regular bus routes. On top of these, some school districts pay for many more additional routes they deem inappropriate for students to walk because of these dangerous cir-cum-stances.

In Bluffdale, for example, students walk past open irrigation ditches and canals to get to Bluffdale Elementary, 14323 S. 2700 West. Waterways in the area run full at this time of year, and sometimes spill over their edges, said Kelly Wall, whose children attend the school.

Most subdivisions don't have sidewalks, so students trundle down the street toward school.

If the district phases out these routes, Bluffdale students will have to cross Redwood Road at 14400 South, where there is no light and no traffic signal.

"I have nightmares over that," said Wall, who is also PTA president at Oquirrh Hills Middle School in Riverton.

Board President Jane Callister has been lobbied on both sides of the issue.

Cities that have up to 20 percent annual growth complicate the problem. Subdivisions go in, but sidewalks aren't finished. Schools planned in rural areas like Bluffdale mean students are walking in less-than-ideal circumstances.

So, schools are applying for increasing numbers of "hazardous" routes. Several years ago, there were 60 applications. Last year, there were 198 applications for dangerous-route funding. The district was able to fund 130, with an emphasis on young students - kindergarten through sixth grade.

All routes submitted are legitimate, Callister said. "They are all hazardous. That's just the way we're growing."

Indeed, the system needs study, Callister said. It's too big. The district simply can't transport each student to school. But Callister doesn't think this is the year to cancel routes.

Schools, parents and community groups haven't had enough warning. "To just chop it off does not give any lead time."

At tonight's meeting, members of the public will be able to address the board for three minutes, or six minutes if they represent a group.