Monday, December 15, 2008

Blind veteran loses courtesy school pickup for his son

From TCPalm in Florida:

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Dana Millar’s 6-year-old son, William, (pictured) on occasion takes a taxi cab to and from Lakewood Park Elementary School.

Figuring out how to get his son to and from school each day is a constant struggle for the single father because he’s blind and can’t drive. As a courtesy, the school district last year provided bus transportation for William, but cut the service this year because of state budget cuts.

Because William lives within two miles of his school, by law, the school district doesn’t have to provide transportation.

“They’re putting my son’s safety behind their budget cuts,” Millar said. “I don’t think it’s asking too much. There are no sidewalks, and there is a lot of traffic.”

About 600 students countywide, all within a two-mile radius of their area schools, were affected by the elimination of courtesy pickups, said Don Carter, director of transportation for the St. Lucie County School District.

“The elimination of courtesy stops was probably the most painful from the perspective of the community, because it impacted a lot of families,” Carter said.

The move was part of an effort to cut $2.5 million from the district’s $24 million transportation budget, Carter said. Eliminating courtesy pickups was a big part of that budget cut. The district ran 400 buses last year. This year they’re down to 360, Carter said. It costs about $50,000 annually to operate a bus, he said.

Carter won’t make an exception for William because he’d have to provide courtesy pickups for other students who want them, he said.

“It’s certainly not that I don’t sympathize with their situation,” Carter said. “I have to feel for him. It’s just that if I opened the door for him, I’d have to open the door for everybody.”

State Department of Education officials said they have no authority in the matter.

“We understand the difficult decisions that are being made in districts across the state, and sympathize with their dilemma to cut programs due to budgetary limitations,” said Kelsey Lehtomaa, deputy press secretary for the department. “We are hopeful that this economic downturn will be short-lived, so programs such as courtesy busing can continue to help deserving families.”

Meanwhile, Millar, 48, said he feels helpless. He said he’s tried to get help from local school officials, but they’re unwilling to listen or return his calls. He also said he’s offered to pay the cost for picking up his son.

Millar, who lives in a small duplex in Lakewood Park, is a U.S. Army veteran. He lost his eyes during a military explosion when he was 19 years old, he said. Doctors had to replace his eyes with acrylic eyes. Millar, who walks with a cane, said he tried walking his son to school one time, but since he can’t see, he got lost. And it’s just too dangerous, he said.

So he scrambles each day to find friends or acquaintances to pick up his son, even paying some of them. “That’s how desperate I am,” he said. “It’s never the same person who picks him up.”

Millar said the issue has been hard on his son who has already had a difficult life.

After William’s mother was incarcerated, and still is, in a California prison, he was placed in foster homes. When Millar, who lived in Boston, Mass., at the time, found out, he flew to California to gain full custody of him.

The father and son moved to Fort Pierce two years ago. He said his son was recently diagnosed with dsylexia. He’s hoping that might qualify his son as a special needs student, so he can ride the bus.

“He seemed to take it personal that the bus doesn’t pick him up,” Millar said. “If I don’t get this resolved with the school district, I might consider moving back up north.”

Carter said Millar is not the only parent with a disability requesting a courtesy pickup.

“I have several on my desk now where the parent is disabled or handicapped,” he said. “It’s certainly not isolated. But I have to say his situation is certainly the worst.”
Carter said the state provides exceptions where it will give districts money for picking up students who live within a two-mile radius of a school if they live within a high traffic, dangerous area. The district also must provide transportation for students with special needs, but there is nothing in the law mandating school districts provide transportation for students whose parents are disabled or handicapped, Carter said.

“We’d prefer the state change their rules and allow us to receive funding for these kids,” he said. “Anything we do to expand our operation takes dollars out of the classrooms, and we certainly don’t want to do that.”