OCEANSIDE — Cesar Chavez Middle School’s cafeteria was packed with families after school on Sept. 10, who were there to demand Oceanside Unified School District (OUSD) continue providing busing for the Crown Heights community, a service the district plans to end next year.
OUSD first eliminated transportation throughout the district in 2010 but made exceptions for students on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and for students who live on Camp Pendleton, which is only accessible to Oceanside High School via Interstate 5.
Since Ditmar Elementary closed in 2008, the district has had an additional bus route for children in the Crown Heights community to take them to other nearby schools. This bus route has operated through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the district and the city of Oceanside since 2015, according to Neighborhood Services Director Margery Pierce. Before that, it was through a Crown Heights residential association and Community HousingWorks, a nonprofit that provides affordable apartments and connections to community services and resources throughout San Diego County.
Pierce said the city took over as a “pass-through” agency for the bus service after Community HousingWorks downsized its presence in the community. The district provided one school bus to serve the neighborhood and Lincoln Middle and South Oceanside Elementary schools, while the city administered the program by collecting fees to reimburse the district for providing transportation.
According to the MOU document, the city reimbursed the district $2,760 per month for the 2015-2016 school year. Matthew Jennings, communications director for OUSD, said more recently the reimbursement was a monthly $2,985. Each student was charged about $30 to ride the bus.
Several speakers told the board they were required to do various community service activities and attend community meetings in order to get reduced fees. Both the district and the city denied enacting such requirements. The MOU document does not mention such requirements either.
Pierce said the Crown Heights residents association required parents to participate in neighborhood cleanups and to be engaged in the neighborhood prior to the city taking over the MOU.
“We couldn’t require them to volunteer in order to use a city program,” Pierce said.
OUSD could have renewed the MOU with the city, Pierce said, but the district decided against it.
Shannon Soto, OUSD superintendent of administrative services, said that the district opted not to renew the service because it isn’t a service that is provided throughout the whole district.
“We’re providing busing for one particular neighborhood, but there are additional families that would benefit from access to busing,” Soto said. “We’re not offering it to anyone else since transportation was eliminated in 2010.”
Lynn Gonzalez, a teacher at South Oceanside Elementary who previously taught at Ditmar for 15 years before it closed, told the board at its Sept. 10 meeting that it needs to keep its promise to continue providing busing to the Crown Heights community after closing its neighborhood school.
“We organized to try and oppose to closure of our school and we were not successful, however, we did elicit promises from the district to continue providing transportation,” Gonzalez told The Coast News. “There are very few staff members at the administrative level that remain from those days, but that’s no excuse for not knowing the history and promises the district made to that community.”
After Ditmar closed, families got to choose where they wanted to send their children. About a fourth of its students and staff ended up at South Oceanside.
“They promised that the savings would be so great that the closure of our school would be of very little importance for bus transportation,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez and several other speakers at the Sept. 10 meeting pointed out that Crown Heights is an economically distressed community with a predominantly Latinx population that was disproportionately affected by Ditmar closing and now by ending the bus route.
Because the district did not renew the MOU, it is not collecting fees from families but is continuing to provide busing for free for the 2019-2020 school year to those who rode the bus last year. Because transportation will not be provided after this year, the district is once again giving families a chance to choose which schools they want their children to attend.
“Families can choose to attend any of our elementary or middle schools, including two elementary schools that are approximately 1.2 miles from the community and one middle school that is approximately 1.4 miles from the community,” Jennings said via email.
The district plans to reach out to each affected family with information about the bus route ending and what their options are.
Many argued that the distance to the other schools were too far for young students to walk.
On Aug. 31, Crown Heights residents organized a walk from their community to Lincoln Middle School to test how long it would take students to get there. According to Gonzalez, they left around 6:30 a.m. but still weren’t able to make it on time to school by 7:15 a.m., when the school locks its gates.
Elizabeth Camano, a student at Oceanside High School, pointed out that students are punished when they are late.
“You guys give us lunch detention for coming late,” Camano told the board. “If we don’t have those buses or if our siblings don’t have those buses they’re going to be coming late, but then you guys will blame us.”
Gonzalez noted that the middle school doesn’t have lockers either, which means students would be carrying all of their books and supplies to and from school on that walk as well.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son