For Linda Caires, who lives about a mile and a half from the elementary school, letting her three youngest children walk to school by themselves is just not an option.
Clark Road, on which they would have to walk, has no sidewalks. Fourteen registered sex offenders live or work in town.
And then there’s the railroad. Caires has a terrifying vision about what her 10-year-old son might do if he was carrying a heavy backpack – the backpack, she said, is about one-third his weight – on a day when it starts to rain. No matter how many times a child is told to cross the railroad only at a designated place, she said, one day he might be tempted to take a shortcut.
“And even if they do cross at the depot, there is still no crossing guard there. It’s just scary,” she said. “There is a 6 o’clock train in the morning, and they keep coming every half-hour, and there are also freight trains that use that line. There are big, enormous freight trains going across there.”
Caires has to face this prospect because of the School Committee’s unanimous vote last month to eliminate four of the town’s eight school buses – leaving no bus transportation for approximately 275 elementary and middle school children who live within 2 miles of their school.
Cutting the four school buses will save the district $200,012 per year, according to business manager Evan Katz. For the School Committee, it was that or losing art, music, or gym classes.
“It was a choice of either starting to eliminate those programs, or possibly having larger class sizes,” Katz said. “They decided it’s better to eliminate transportation.”
To make matters worse, a budget crunch at the Police Department means that the town’s only crossing guard will not return in September.
But in the weeks since the committee vote, the parents in this small town have shown that they aren’t about to let their children walk the 2 miles alone.
The parents have joined forces and started an e-mail list, where they are passing around ideas about how to get their children to school safely.
Caires, for instance, is looking into the idea of putting advertising on school buses to bring down costs.
“I have relatives in Braintree; they did this a few years back. I believe they got Pizza Hut to agree to advertise,” she said, adding that she hopes for some healthy-food advertisers for Shirley, like a Subway restaurant.
Her idea received positive responses on the mailing list, with one person suggesting that the town privatize trash pickup and get private trash collectors to advertise on school buses.
Parent Dina Samfield, on the other hand, is trying to organize a “Safe Routes to Schools” program in Shirley.
The program would identify the streets children will take to school, mapping out the safest routes, and using orange cones and crossing guards to make walking and biking safe. Another possibility is to have groups of children walk together with an adult chaperone, Samfield said.
She is looking for volunteer crossing guards, volunteers to walk with the children, people to help map out routes, fitness specialists, and donations from area businesses.
She also designed T-shirts, which she ordered with her own money, to begin fund-raising for things such as orange cones and orange vests for crossing guards. She plans to hold a meeting to discuss details in the next two weeks, she said.
“One of the most important things is to get the parents to tell us which routes their kids take to school,” she said.
Samfield added that once the program starts working, it will be “a way of solving a bunch of different problems.” It will help children get more exercise (because of budget cuts, they only get one day of physical education per week), pollution, and decrease traffic in front of the school, she said.
Several parents have said they will have to rearrange their schedules to drive their children to and from school. Carpooling is another option that has been mentioned, though some parents expressed reservations about that arrangement.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea if you have a car full of kids and get into an accident,” Caires said. “I feel a lot safer to have that big bus with an experienced driver.”
Nancy Davenport, owner of Shirley’s largest private child care provider, The Wonderful World of Children, for example, said that while 10 of the 54 children in her center ride buses to and from school, it wouldn’t be feasible for one of her employees to drive them because of the high cost of liability insurance.
The lack of buses will “affect our business dramatically,” Davenport said. “I’m going to have to lose a lot of children that I serve, and some of these children have been in the program for years.”
Some of her employees, like Kate Robinson, whose son enters first grade in September, will drive their children to school.
“He would have to cross at least two main roads, the railroad track, [and] cross in front of a convenience store, a [drive-through] ATM, and a Dunkin’ Donuts – and I know these are all busy places in the morning,” she said.
Those interested in the Safe Routes to Schools program may contact Dina Samfield at email@example.com or 978-448-9311. A school bus discussion forum is at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ShirleyMass/.