Budget cuts leave some students without a ride


Volunteers may be needed to help perform a service the state Department of Education can’t afford: getting some Waikoloa children to school.

Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School is the only Big Island school to lose bus service this coming academic year. The DOE announced earlier this month that two of its bus routes, serving approximately 96 students, will be cut.

Facing a $5.5 million deficit in the student transportation services budget, DOE decided to cut 73 school bus routes statewide, affecting 2,044 riders. The most recent list of discontinued bus service is available at doe.k12.hi.us/bus.

DOE, which spends more than $70 million annually on school buses, originally faced a $17 million deficit. However, the Board of Education voted in June to use about $11 million in federal impact and aid, as well as other funds, to help with the shortfall. DOE’s initial recommendation of discontinued bus routes a few months ago would have affected 20,000 students. That recommendation then changed to cuts affecting around 4,000 students, later dropped to cuts affecting 2,380 students and then became what it’s now.

Paula Telles, DOE’s West Hawaii Transport Officer, referred all media inquiries to the DOE and messages seeking comment were not returned as of press time. West Hawaii Area Complex Superintendent Art Souza also could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The affected Waikoloa neighborhoods are Waikoloa Gardens, Paniolo Greens, Makana Kai, Waikoloa Hills, Mahina, Ua-Noe, Auhili Loop, Kauhiwai, LuaKula, Laie, AkaUla, Hulu and KilaKila.

Waikoloa Elementary and Middle Principal Kris Kosa-Correia said only the bus traveling within the village to the school has been eliminated, and those affected — which she claimed to be more like 25 students — will either have to lace up their walking shoes, pedal bicycles or find another ride.

Buses traveling outside of the village, picking up students in Puako and along the South Kohala Coast, will continue. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade must reside a mile or more from the school to ride the bus, she added.

The first day of school for students is July 30, according to DOE’s official 2012-13 school calendar. Taking the Hele-On bus, run by the Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency, is not an option for the affected students since there’s only a route that goes to Waikoloa Village, and the pick up is at 8:45 a.m. Monday through Friday — which is later than school starts.

For some students who took the bus the cut may result in them walking two miles to school — something that concerns Kosa-Correia, especially if the youngster is a 5-year-old kindergartner. One solution could be expanding its walking school bus program, part of Peoples Advocacy for Trails Hawaii’s Safe Routes to School initiative, she said.

Every Friday last school year, between 12 and 30 students participated in the walking school bus. Volunteer “drivers” met students at various street corners around the village and the group walked a one-mile route to school. If wanted, the program could be offered additional days, perhaps even daily in the morning, when bus ridership tends to be the highest. More volunteers would also likely be needed for such an expansion, Kosa-Correia said.

“I’m open to discussing all creative, problem-solving solutions,” she said. “Anyone with concerns or questions regarding bus service may call me, the school, (West Hawaii Area Complex Superintendent) Art Souza or (West Hawaii Transport Officer) Paula Telles.”

Kosa-Correia also mentioned there was a group of parents who have expressed interest in going to the Legislature and asking for the routes be reinstated. Some state lawmakers have spoken out about the cuts. Rep. K. Mark Takai, D-Aiea, Pearl City, has sent a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, asking him to provide funds to bring back bus routes and suggested changing school bell schedules.

For more information about the bus routes and changes, call Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School at 883-6808 or Telles at 327-9500.