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Busing cuts the latest worry for Philly's parents

Philadelphia parents who have worried for the last several weeks over proposed cuts to full-day kindergarten and free public transportation are breathing a little easier.

Philadelphia parents who have worried for the last several weeks over proposed cuts to full-day kindergarten and free public transportation are breathing a little easier.

But parents like Kathleen Margay, whose children ride yellow school buses to and from school, aren't quite so fortunate.

Thousands of parents of continue to wrestle with how they will deal with the district's decision to cut funding for yellow-bus services from next year's $2.7 billion budget.

"I could put them on SEPTA, but do I want my sixth- and third-grader traveling on the bus that far?" Margay asked. "The busing issue is completely not fair."

Last week, SEPTA offered to allow the district to delay paying for TransPasses purchased next school year until September 2012. That's great news for the mainly 60,000 high-school students who take public transportation to school, but not for the roughly 45,000 elementary-school students who primarily ride yellow buses to and from school.

Without busing, these students will have to either take the subway, walk, or both, putting them in potential danger, parents say.

Education and political observers say that by choosing to cut such an essential service - which will strain families financially and put younger children at risk - district officials have shown just how far they're willing to go to plug a $629 million hole in next year's $2.7 billion budget.

"It's going to be a huge problem," said Margay, who lives in Fairmount but enrolled her children at St. Peter's School, at 3rd and Lombard streets in South Philadelphia.

Officials estimate saving $26.5 million by eliminating school-bus services, including 1,400 driving positions and contracts with 10 outside companies, said a district spokesman.

Exempt from the cuts are charter-school students, those with disabilities who are legally required to be bused to school, and others whose extenuating circumstances require service, such as homeless students, said spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Those who would be affected are the more than 25,000 district, private and parochial students, many of whom travel outside of their neighborhoods to go to school, said Gerald Wright, of the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education.

Aside from safety issues, Wright said, attendance and truancy will also be affected.

"I was surprised that transportation was ever a thing to cut," he said. "It's counterproductive."

"[District] leadership chose to cut busing and full-day kindergarten because they're hot-button issues and they know people would respond, but people are going to be less trusting of the priorities of the leadership."

Parents say they have cause to worry. Buses are typically provided for a child whose route to and from school is determined to be too dangerous, said Tim Leller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

In the city, 246 of the district's routes are considered "hazardous," meaning they either lack sidewalks or shoulders, or are located in high-traffic areas, making them too dangerous for kids, according to district data.

District officials declined to release exact drop-off and pickup locations of students' routes, but said that most perilous roadways surround charter and private schools in Northeast Philadelphia, City Avenue, Germantown and Chestnut Hill.

But it was the recent accident of a boy on Roosevelt Boulevard that rattled parent Bruce Pratt. On a recent sunny afternoon outside Thomas Creighton Elementary School in Olney, Pratt picked up his son, 8-year-old Arion, after school.

In April, his son's schoolmate, Jeff BienAmie, 7, was struck while crossing the Boulevard and Pratt said he couldn't shake the thought that it could have been his own son, a second-grader.

With no school buses, he fears more kids will end up like Jeff.

"It's going to be even more crazy," Pratt said. "They shouldn't cut nothing like that. [Students] here don't have enough as it is."

But with funding restored for full-day kindergarten, and SEPTA Transpasses off the chopping block, some parents say they're holding out on hope that busing can be saved.