CLARKSVILLE, TN (CLARKSVILLE NOW) – Several parents with children at Sango Elementary School got a surprise this week: A note that says starting next year, their young children would no longer be picked up by a bus and would instead be walking up to 1 miles to school. In some cases, that will mean kindergartners walking unattended along and across Sango Road.
The change is in response to a critical shortage of bus drivers – CMCSS simply doesn’t have enough drivers and has to cut back on bus zones.
But Clarksville Now tried this week to walk along the side of Sango Road from the school to some of these homes. It is not possible.
Change in ‘parent responsibility zone’
Ashleigh Rankin’s son, 4, is about to enter kindergarten, and under this change, he will have to walk across Sango Road to get to the school.
“The thought of having these 5- and 6-year-olds potentially walk to school next year is extremely frustrating and concerning, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hit or hurt. And it’s really disappointing that CMCSS doesn’t seem to care about student safety.”
The notification from CMCSS says that because of a nationwide and local critical shortage of school bus drivers, starting with the 2022-2023 school year, the radius of the “parent responsibility zone” (PRZ), the area in which families are responsible for providing Transportation, will be increased by half a mile: to 1 mile for elementary students and 1 1/2 miles for middle and high school students.
There are some exceptions. The change won’t apply to students who would have to navigate:
- 4 or more lanes of traffic without a crossing guard.
- Roads with insufficient road width (less than 24 feet) with speeds above 35 mph.
- Roads with no sidewalks with speeds above 35 mph.
Sango Road has no sidewalks but it’s a 35 mph one-lane road, so the exceptions don’t apply.
Rankin said there are no crosswalks painted onto Sango Road at the school, and cars are constantly speeding by. There is a flashing light for a school zone, but it’s easy to miss, and there’s no crossing guard.
Rankin lives in the Shea’s Way neighborhood, which at least has a sidewalk leading to a point across Sango Road from the school campus.
Some families will have a more dangerous journey.
Walking Sango Road
To better understand the situation, Clarksville Now walked from the Sango Elementary campus to some of the neighborhoods nearby.
Walking west along Sango Road to The Veridian, a new development at the end of the PRZ, the reporter walked through the front yards of about a dozen residents with varying accessibility, sometimes waking in shallow ditches.
Because of steeper ditches, fences and other obstructions, walking from The Veridian to the school requires crossing Sango Road not once but three times.
And in one case, there is no access. Students will have no choice but to walk directly on Sango Road for an approximately 40-foot stretch, bounded on one side by a rusted barbed wire fence and on the other by a brush-covered rocky drop-off, hiding yet another rusted barbed wire fence.
On the other side of this area on Sango Road is Kelly Head, who has two kids at Sango Elementary, one going into fifth grade and the other going into kindergarten. She said they never walk along the road in front of their home.
“It’s dangerous. We don’t ride our bikes, we don’t walk, If I want to go ride bikes at the school, I would pack them up in the truck and drive them down there.”
Head’s house is about 1,200 feet from the school entrance, and she said the traffic from the entrance backs up all the way to her home. So, for that 40-foot section, when there’s a line of cars, there is literally no room for a child to walk on the road, even if doing so were advisable.
Also on the other side of that section is The Veridian, a 29-home development at the end of the new PRZ.
“The distance is not a problem. It’s the road. If they’d put in sidewalks all the way, I guess that would be OK, but this is dangerous,” Head said.
Sango Road isn’t the only problem. Parents have reported concerns about areas near East Montgomery Elementary School and in other areas of the county and city.
These situations will likely be addressed before school starts, CMCSS spokesman Anthony Johnson told Clarksville Now.
“The Operations Department is actively reviewing areas of concern that have been brought to their attention after parents/guardians have reviewed the maps,” Johnson said. “The CMCSS Health and Safety department participated in the feasibility study, and zones were adjusted in accordance with the safety hazard criteria. However, there may be areas of concern not reflected in the criteria that will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”
County, city roads for cars, not walkers
While CMCSS may be able to address specific issues between now and fall 2022, it points to a wider problem across the county: Most Montgomery County roads and many city roads were designed exclusively for cars, with no sidewalks and no shoulders, often dropping off into a ditch with no shoulder, or bounded by fences or overgrown vegetation.
And CMCSS has built school campuses on these roads without the county or city governments making the surrounding areas walk- and bike-friendly.
“There are certainly challenges in Clarksville-Montgomery County with access to sidewalks,” Johnson said.
“The CMCSS Operations Department is already collaborating with city and county agencies on opportunities to improve the safety of routes and will continue that work as feedback is received.”
He said CMCSS leaders have met with city leaders to discuss sidewalk concerns, and the city is working on additional sidewalk projects to improve school safety.
Whether those additional projects could be completed before the start of school in August is another matter. The design, right-of-way and constructions timelines for all Transportation 2020 sidewalk projects in the city currently show a progress status of 0%.
Why not drive them?
Rankin said some might suggest parents simply drive their kids to school, but she said that’s not feasible for many who have come to rely on the bus system.
“The drop-off lines are unreal, and it’s a huge time commitment to pick up and drop off your children, especially for those of us who work and those of us who have military spouses who are not around.”
Adriana Dziembowski lives in the same Shea’s Way neighborhood across Sango Road and has a child going into first grade at Sango.
“It’s upsetting. We used to actually live in an area (in Washington state) where our kids walked and rode their bikes to school. It was a mile and a half, but we had sidewalks and crosswalks and crossing guards, so I just let them go, waved goodbye, welcomed them home, and it was fine.”
Dziembowski said their system was part of a nationwide program that encouraged walking to school, so the school sent out maps with ideal routes for the children, and teachers and principals regularly joined the kids on their morning walks.
“But here – we moved here hoping for that, but … you’re walking through weeds, and all the morning traffic. There’s no one out there to watch them, you have to cross and there’s no safe way for them to get there.”
Johnson said walking maps could be part of the solution.
“On a school-by-school and community-by-community basis, resources such as suggested route maps, walking groups, carpool groups, etc. may be organized by school support organizations, parent groups, neighborhood groups, etc. CMCSS encourages families and subdivisions to work together as has been observed with those who have lived in the pre-existing PRZs for schools,” he said.
Dziembowski went to the school to try and discuss the situation, but she was told there’s nothing she can do. It was suggested that she volunteer to drive a bus.
She said she was also told there aren’t enough teachers to staff the classrooms, so there also won’t be enough teachers to walk the children to school.
Johnson said CMCSS is considering new staffing assignments, modified drop-off and dismissal procedures and times, and additional crossing guards where needed, along with requesting additional crossing guards from the City of Clarksville.
Few options for CMCSS
The state defines the PRZ as a “non-transport” area of 1.5 miles from the school. For years, CMCSS exceeded the expectations of state law by providing busing to elementary students who are more than a half-mile from school, 1 mile for middle and high schoolers.
But without enough bus drivers and teachers, something has to give.
CMCSS transportation will still be an option for around 30,000 eligible students.
To address the critical bus driver shortage, CMCSS is providing the following additional compensation incentives:
- Sign-on bonus of $1,000 for new drivers.
- Referral bonus of $1,000 for current drivers.
- Grants for driving extra routes at $10.00 per additional route (this is in addition to regular pay).
- Performance end-of-year bonus of $600 for drivers who have been employed with CMCSS for 18 months or more.
Hourly rates for bus drivers start at $16.27 and range up to $24.19, based on years of experience. Pending budget approval by the County Commission in June, the range will increase to $18.66-$27.72. Interested candidates can visit cmcss.net/employment, email Calvin.Holliday@cmcss.net, or call 931-358-4230.
To get involved
“Feeback is appreciated, and we definitely need to hear from parents,” Johnson said.
The Transportation Department will be contacting families who have students in expanded zones.
For maps of the new zones and more information, go to the CMCSS bus zoning site.
Parents should review the maps and the routes, and those who have concerns should call the Transportation Department Customer Service at 931-358-4089 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.