Students attending Orville Wright Middle School and Westchester High School who are enrolled in a transportation permit program now have an additional task before the first bell rings: finding a new way to get to school.

At least 53,000 students districtwide will be affected by a decision to eliminate district-provided transportation, according to transportation officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

School administrators whose pupils will no longer be able to ride the LAUSD buses to school were notified on July 1 about the district’s latest cost-cutting move to reduce its $640 million budget shortfall for the 2010-2011 school year.

According to school district officials, the primary reason for the change in the school transportation program is due to budget reductions at the state level.

“If I could have done anything to stop it, I would have fought it tooth and nail,” said LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester.

The reassignment of pick-up sites and the elimination of bus delivery for some students is expected to save approximately $9 million, according to LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

The Westchester schools are two of several school sites where service for students enrolled in Permits With Transportation has been discontinued due to the walking distance of their home school. Transportation services will continue for eligible students, but pick-up sites have been reassigned.

District officials say they are aware that these abrupt changes to student transportation may impose certain hardships on a segment of affected pupils.

“I realize many students may have to walk farther to and from their pick-up locations or school of attendance, which will negatively affect students, families and entire school communities,” Cortines wrote in a letter to school board members and parents in July. “Let me assure you the district’s Transportation Services Division will work with school administrators and local authorities to ensure continued transportation services for our students and address any safety concerns associated with these unfortunate but necessary changes.”

Zimmer said the loss of transportation provided by the district was one of the many unfortunate circumstances of the state’s and the nation’s second largest school district’s failure to handle their respective fiscal challenges.

“This is just one of the many injustices of the budget deficit,” Zimmer lamented.

This is not the first time that students at Westchester High have been affected by a government entity’s fiscal challenges. Two years ago, students who use public transportation to and from the high school absorbed reductions in the availability of bus line 115, following a decision by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors to trim its budget deficit by cutting back or eliminating certain bus routes. Line 108, which runs through Marina del Rey, was targeted for elimination, but was saved due to last minute lobbying by Marina residents and business interests.

The district has given MTA bus passes to affected students so they may ride public transportation for free. Zimmer said he had to lobby the district to give passes to ninth graders, who initially were not included.

Both the middle school and the high school made similar gains in the Academic Performance Index (API) last year. But Zimmer thinks the reassignment of transportation to school could negate those gains.

“These changes will have impacts on attendance and on academic performance,” the school board member, a former teacher, predicted. “These are not defensible changes.”

Ingrid Lamoureux, a former Parent-Teachers Association president at Orville Wright, recognizes that transportation costs at LAUSD have soared in recent years.

“It’s one of their costliest items,” she said.

Others worry that students who must now rely on other methods to come to school might face economic obstacles if they are late. Lisa Adler, then coordinator of Voices of Students Taking Action, an after-school organization of Westchester High students, said in an interview earlier this year that the school district is fining students who arrive late to their campuses.

“These tickets can cost up to $250 plus added court fees, and force students to miss another day of school in court with their parent/guardian, who must also miss a day of work,” she said.

Alita LeDuff, an administrative assistant at the middle school, said it is not uncommon for many students to arrive a little late at the beginning of the school year.

“We have not had a lot of feedback (regarding students affected by the elimination of school transportation),” she said.

Zimmer said given the recent decision to take away transportation from so many students, he would not like to see those enrolled in Permits With Transportation who are late to school ticketed if there were problems with public transportation or obtaining a ride.

“I am categorically opposed to criminalizing truancy,” Zimmer asserted. “It’s one thing if it was chronic truancy, but that should not be related to circumstances out of their control.

“If situations like that come to my attention, I am ready to intervene,” he pledged.

Lamoureux, whose daughter attends the high school, is also concerned about the schools losing students because they will no longer have the option of taking a school bus.

“Some parents who work in other cities could try to get them into schools on their way to work,” she said.

Because the Westchester schools have been open for only two weeks, LeDuff said she is unable to ascertain if any students have left the middle school because of the new transportation policy.

Regarding any possible changes to student field trips and district transportation, Zimmer said there is more flexibility to access other accounts so that these trips might not be altered as drastically as bus transportation to school.

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