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Ledyard - For some students heading back to school today, the most essential school supply may be a good pair of walking shoes: New bus routes could have them walking as far as 3 miles to catch the school bus.
The busing plan for the 2014-15 school year uses "cluster stops" - one bus stop for all students in a general area rather than pick-ups at individual doors or street corners.
The district decided to move to cluster stops over the summer, said Ledyard Public Schools Business Manager Jason Lathrop, to comply with a reduced public transportation budget. The schools are making do with $100,000 less in transportation funding than last year, the equivalent of losing two buses.
The new routes have left some parents worried and scrambling for alternative arrangements. Families of students who attend out-of-district schools - those who are most significantly affected by the changes - were sent letters notifying them of their new bus stops on Aug. 20, just one week before the start of the school year.
"It's a very long walk," said parent Loucille Pepin, who said she felt "blindsided" by the short notice.
The change would mean her son would have to trek 3 miles from their home to Ledyard Center School to board the bus bound for Grasso Tech. He'd have to walk down Route 117, which, notes Pepin, is not designed for pedestrian access.
The route has "no crosswalks, no stop signs, no nothing," she said on Tuesday. "I drive this daily, and I know the drivers are crazy. I get tailgated; people are on their cellphones."
The changes also violate the Board of Education's own policy manual, which states that no high school student should have to walk more than 2 miles to a bus stop. Pepin cited that regulation in a lengthy email sent to Lathrop and Mayor John Rodolico on Sunday after several failed attempts to reach Lathrop by phone during the previous week.
Pepin, who said she and her husband only have one car and busy schedules, is still working out a plan to transport her children during the first week of school. She has requested a change to her assigned public transportation, joining approximately 50 Ledyard families who did so as of Monday, according to Lathrop.
He said 30 of the requests have been resolved, but 20, like Pepin's, are pending. The district will complete site reviews of those requests between Sept. 2 and Sept. 5 to determine whether they are eligible for a transportation change.
Lathrop did not elaborate on what would happen after the site reviews, and Pepin said she isn't completely sure, either. She'd love to have her son picked up at the front door but would settle for a bus stop on Route 12, a little closer than the current one.
Pepin said she'd like to consider the 3 miles just good exercise, and would perhaps do so if Route 117 were safer. It's the last-minute notification and lack of attention to the established regulations that bothers her most, she said.
"My son's not a delicate flower. I'm not coddling him, but it's the principle of everything," explained Pepin. "No one mapped this out. … I just think that's irresponsible for the Board of Education."
Although Lathrop said all bus routes will have reduced stops, the changes appear to affect students at magnet or other out-of-district schools the most. Those attending the New London Science and Technology Magnet School, LEARN schools, Ella T. Grasso Technical High School or Norwich Technical High School can only board the bus at the old Gales Ferry School, Gallup Hill School, Ledyard Center School and the Juliet W. Long School.
Juliet W. Long School is the pick-up location for students going to Nathan Hale Elementary, Winthrop Elementary, the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication or the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London.