Kids' walk to new school worries Iowa City parents

Roosevelt students switching to Horn Elementary

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March 31, 2014 | 6:44 pm

When Victoria Phillips recently attended an orientation at Horn Elementary School, where her three children will be new students next fall, she also got a preview of their walk to school.

And she didn’t like it.

Neither do other parents of the approximately 30 students in Iowa City’s Miller-Orchard neighborhood who will attend Horn after their neighborhood school, Roosevelt Elementary, closes at the end of this month.

Their homes, an average of 1.2 miles from Horn, fall within the district’s two-mile limit for busing. Parents, however, say there are safety factors that should allow for exceptions.

The walk from Phillips’ home is right at that 1.2-mile average. The kids – the youngest, who will be in first grade, has medical issues that likely will allow him to be bused – will walk along busy Benton Street, up and down a big hill and past the driveways of several large apartment complexes.

“I don’t want them to get hit,” Phillips said.

The walk also will take the kids past Roosevelt, a quarter-mile from their home.

The Iowa City school board’s 2009 decision to close the aging Roosevelt and replace it with a new school, Borlaug Elementary a few miles west, was strongly opposed by Roosevelt parents and neighbors.

Many of those Roosevelt students will go to Horn, and Miller-Orchard is a working-class neighborhood on the far east side of the new school boundary, along Benton Street near Riverside Drive.

Exceptions to the two-mile rule can be granted for hazardous conditions, like crossing a railroad or a very busy roadway.

The Iowa City school district’s bus contractor, Durham School Services, recently determined the route was not hazardous. Becky Furlong, an assistant superintendent with the school district, said there are no plans to change that decision.

She also said she is confident kids will be safe walking along Benton Street, although the district formed a community committee to address concerns. Actions and ideas from the group include:

• Placing three crossing guards along Benton Street and possibly seeking volunteers to serve as extra crossing guards the first couple of weeks of school.

• Looking into financial assistance for families to send their kids to Horn on city buses, which cost money.

• Implementing a “walking school bus,” in which children walk to and from school in adult-supervised groups. The city of Iowa City is helping with a grant application for equipment like reflective vests.

Iowa City transportation planner John Yapp said the three crossing guards plus another a block north of Benton Street on Sunset Street will give Horn four of the 13 crossing guards for Iowa City and University Heights schools.

Benton Street sees an average of 10,600 vehicles a day near Roosevelt and 5,700 by Horn, he said. The Roosevelt number is high for by a school, he said, but not for an arterial street.

By comparison, First Avenue near Hoover Elementary gets 10,500 vehicles daily and Oakdale Boulevard by Wickham Elementary in Coralville has 4,400.

The district spent $4.9 million on busing last school year and has budgeted $5.2 million this year.

David Dude, the school district’s interim executive director of operational resources, said 46 percent of the district’s students ride buses to and from school, and about two dozen areas have exceptions to the two-mile rule. The decision can be appealed to the school board, and then on to the local Area Education Agency and even the state. In 2007, a group of Iowa City West High parents unsuccessfully appealed a busing denial to the Grant Wood Area Education Agency board.

Dude said there has been no formal request for a review of the Horn decision. Mary Knudson, a Miller-Orchard Neighborhood Association representative, and Mei-ling Joiner, a parent of Roosevelt student who will go to Horn next year, said many of the affected families assumed they’d get busing and didn’t know otherwise until the two women knocked on doors last month to spread the word.

Joiner said only one of the 10 families she spoke with owned a car, meaning most of them do not have the option of driving their kids. Phillips is in that group.

Joiner, who lives close to Horn and isn’t concerned about her son’s walk, said walking to school can be healthy activity for kids but the issue is more about what parents consider an unsafe route.

Koni Steele agrees. Her son will switch from Roosevelt to Horn as a fifth-grader next fall

and will be walking to school for the first time without his junior high-bound older brother. She worries about him walking more than a mile in bad weather and that the distance increases the chances that someone could try to harm a child.

“It’s more of a safety thing,” she said of her objections.  

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