LEE COUNTY, Fla.-- It's your money and millions are being spent on busing tens of thousands of kids to class in Lee County as part of school choice. As a percentage, Lee County's transportation costs take up more of the total budget than any other of the state's 12 largest counties. Meanwhile, the district is looking for a way to lower that bill. In the meantime, some parents and even a school board member have their own idea about ending school choice.
A mother we talked with, who doesn't want to be identified because she is currently trying to work with the school system, says school choice isn't working for her. Her child signed up for school choice and got her seventh pick. The parent says she's been calling the district's school choice office for over a year to try to get her top choice, but it hasn't worked yet.
"The word choice is an oxymoron. It's not your choice," the parent tells WINK News This Morning Anchor, Rob Spicker. "The choice we got this year is all the way across town. We're just not going to do that when there's a school in our neighborhood that we want to go to."
Right now, some students in Lee County are bused out of their neighborhoods, some even across parts of the county, to go to class. That's why critics of the district's $46 million transportation budget say it could shrink by eliminating school choice.
"Neighborhood schools, in my opinion, are the way to go," outgoing school board member, Bob Chilmonik, tells WINK. Chilmonik says during the school choice debate in 2003, advocates of the system said it would lower busing costs, improve diversity and raise test scores. Chilmonik says that's just not the case.
"It's absolutely not working," he says. "It's not working academically. It's not working for diversity and it's not working financially."
Out of the 12 largest districts in the state, Lee County spends more as a percentage of its budget than the others on transportation. Busing accounts for 8.26% of Lee County's budget according to a 2007-2008 report from the Department of Education. That's twice the average according to the same report. The D.O.E. report also shows 54% of the county's students ride the bus as opposed to 38% statewide. And the buses in Lee County run at just 57% capacity.
Superintendent Dr. James Browder is waiting for the results of a report about ways to lower the district's busing costs. He says the cost per mile in Lee is lower than Charlotte and Collier and that 70 fewer buses are on the road than four years ago. According to Browder, ending school choice would save about $7 million but that is not an option. Browder tells us he believes school choice is "what's right for the children."
Superintendent Browder also says ending school choice would take 200 public meetings and two years to draw the neighborhood boundaries, causing 52,000 of the district's 80,000 students to change schools.
Chilmonik tells WINK that if there is any money to save money by cancelling school choice then, "that money should go to the classroom. There's no question about it."
Browder argues the savings are "less than 3%. Is it worth destroying this district for 3 percent?"
He says most parents get their first or second choice and almost all parents are happy with where their kids are ten days into the school year.
"We feel lucky," parent Lisa Gottesman tells WINK News. She's relieved she got her kindergartner's first choice.
"I can't complain. I've heard horror stories but fortunately we take our kids to school in the morning and it's right down the street," Lisa says.