On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 2, Enrique Garcia was eager to start the new school year. He rushed out the door to wait for his school bus in the Drexel Heights neighborhood.
Thirty minutes passed, and no school bus came. Garcia said he found some change and got on a Sun Tran bus—where he discovered a lot of other Pueblo Magnet High School students in the same situation.
"I got to school an hour late," he said.
The Pueblo senior said his parents never received a notice about a change in bus service, and said he wasn't told about the change during registration. It wasn't until Friday, Aug. 3, that he and his friends learned the school was providing monthly Sun Tran bus passes to students who live outside of a 2.5-mile radius of Pueblo.
Garcia said the Sun Tran buses are crowded with students, and that sometimes other riders are asked to leave to make space for the students. "I hate seeing that. As the bus goes along, it gets more and more crowded. We are sometimes cheek to cheek."
TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone sent an email to all Tucson Unified School District staffers on Friday, Aug. 10, welcoming everyone back for the 2012-2013 school year. He praised the district's transportation efforts.
"While there are many things about which we should be proud, the transportation of our students this past seven days should be high on the list. Our transportation administration, all of the support personnel and our drivers worked very hard to make sure the experiences of last year and as long as most people can remember were not repeated. Let me tell you that they did it!" Pedicone wrote.
In December 2011, TUSD hired a private firm for $200,000 to turn around the district's transportation department within the next year, rather than spend about $94,000 to hire a new transportation director after a failed candidate search. The firm was asked to work on routing issues and address complaints about buses being late.
Pueblo senior Daniel Barragan, who lives in the Midvale area and has taken the bus during his entire time at Pueblo, said he and his parents didn't receive any information about the change in buses serving Pueblo. He was told by the principal that it was a cost-saving decision worked out with Sun Tran.
"But the biggest thing that bothered me is that they didn't inform the community of this decision. He told me he didn't know about it until that Thursday," Barragan said.
If kids being late to school was an issue before, Sun Tran hasn't helped: Barragan and his friends are still getting to school late.
"But we're also worried about safety. We know a kid who had some expensive headphones stolen on the bus, and when he followed the guys who took them, he was threatened. We wonder if the district is concerned that some kids won't go to school," Barragan said. "The passes can be used to go anywhere."
Ashley Sandoval, another Pueblo senior, has been at the school since her freshman year, but moved out of the boundary area two years ago. Under open enrollment, she was still taking a school bus to school, along with her brother, even though it is against the district's policy. When she went to get a Sun Tran bus pass, she was told she wasn't on the list—although her brother was.
"We've been taking buses since sophomore year. I stay after school for clubs and sports, and this is going to be really hard on my dad, who now has to pick me up," Sandoval said.
The walk from home to school takes Sandoval about 15 to 20 minutes, but going home is an issue, especially when she participates in after-school activities. During the winter, it is dark, and she's worried about the traffic and crossing a pedestrian bridge.
Her father, Ricardo Sandoval, said he was never informed about the change, and added that he was told concerned teachers called the district's transportation department and were told the buses were going to be used for other routes. Midvale-area parents who send their kids to what are considered more desirable schools, like Tucson Magnet High School and University High School, were provided buses after parents complained, he claimed.
"I told my daughter that I think the students should get together—no buses, no school—and walk out. If we all come in together, I believe it will make a change," he said.
Sandoval said he also was worried the change could be part of a plan to discourage enrollment at Pueblo to justify closing the school.
In an email, Pedicone wrote that the decision to cancel school buses and provide Sun Tran bus passes was part of a plan to expand the district's current Sun Tran program. He also confirmed that students like Sandoval, who are in open enrollment and do not live in the Pueblo neighborhood, are not eligible for public-transportation passes.
"Things like fixing schedules early and having deadlines for parents to sign their students up for transportation have worked well," he wrote. "All parents were notified by letter during the summer, and transportation advisers were at the Pueblo registration, letting students and parents know as well. This was done at all high schools either during open houses or registration, depending on when the school asked it to be done, since the Sun Tran program expanded this year to come into alignment with (TUSD) policy."
Pedicone wrote that school buses are being used throughout the district as needed, and that 4,000 TUSD high school students received bus passes. "The passes are purchased in cooperation with Sun Tran at a reduced cost, and students may use them on weekends as well. This should be an added benefit to students."
Pedicone said the policy expanding the use of Sun Tran is now part of the district's transportation program. "The consultant has worked with the district, as we had hoped, to improve our transportation program, and that has proven to be effective. We have heard of no situations where students have been threatened on the Sun Tran buses."
Pedicone added: "There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that the yellow buses were removed from Pueblo or any other school for the benefit of any other high school anywhere in the district," he wrote, adding that there "is no attempt to reduce the enrollment at Pueblo. Quite the opposite—we are hoping to grow Pueblo and our other high schools."