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Editorial: Keep the school kids safe

What price for safety?

That’s the question that hides within the push to provide transportation to students who must otherwise make their way through dangerous neighborhoods between home and school.

The answer is that the price is going to be higher than Buffalo pays now, but that’s only part of it. The rest is that the School Board should consider that question as part of a larger reorganization of its transportation policy – one that should include reducing the need, and the cost, by looking into an equitable system of neighborhood schools. That won’t happen tomorrow, but student safety must.

The issue is with students who, because of state policies, aren’t entitled to bus transportation. In general, they are high school students who live less than 1.5 miles from school, and elementary and middle school students who live less than .7 miles away. Some of them have to walk on streets where, for good reason, they feel unsafe. In the winter months, they sometimes have to make their way home at dusk or later. It’s an invitation to trouble, if not tragedy.

A bill working its way through the labyrinth of the State Legislature may make a difference. If would provide aid to four of the Big 5 school districts – Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers – for students residing a half-mile or more from school in cases the State Education Department deems a safety concern. Albany reimburses districts 86% of the cost for transportation. The districts expect to push the bill in next year’s legislative session.

In Buffalo, the concern is not only providing students with safety from people who may pose a danger, but from the occasionally harsh realities of the Buffalo winter. Snow-clogged sidewalks can force pedestrians into crowded streets and children are more susceptible to the dangers of frostbite than adults.

More than safety is at risk. Education is, too. On very cold days, absenteeism rises among students who walk to school. That might be the case in any school district, but in one of the nation’s poorest cities, where families may lack their own transportation, it’s an especially serious problem.

“If you look at the attendance rates in our most neediest schools you will see on the very cold days they’re not coming to school,” said School Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman.

Add that to the problem of dangerous streets, and the argument gains strength. Why pursue a policy that works against the interests of education? “You already have a free lunch program,” Belton-Cottman said. “Why not provide the similar option for children to take the bus in high-crime areas?”

It’s not just a good idea, it’s a moral necessity. There is no defense for putting children at risk. About 970 Buffalo high school students live between a mile and 1.5 miles from their school. The district estimates providing them transportation would cost an additional $577,000 a year. It’s not cheap, but the alternative is intolerable.

That’s a lot of money on top of what is already an expensive proposition: $39 million a year on yellow-bus service, alone. That’s not the only reason for Buffalo to re-engineer its transportation program, but it’s a primary one. And it’s a reason to make education easier for students and their families by keeping kids as close to their neighborhoods as good policy allows.

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