Iced Out

Winter weather raises safety concerns over canceled bus routes

Last week, students at Santa Fe Public Schools enjoyed a snow day Nov. 29 after more than 6 inches of snow fell in the early morning. The next day, the schools had a two-hour delay. And the winter season has only just begun.

Alejandra Rebolledo Rea, Tesuque Elementary School’s PTA president, says she’s worried about the coming winter on behalf of families in the Tesuque area who were left without transportation when the district dropped the school’s only bus route Nov. 6. As SFR reported in “Long Ride” on Nov. 22, the elimination of seven routes has caused an increased reliance on parent drivers across the district.

The terrain surrounding Tesuque Elementary is a more challenging drive when compared to city routes, Rebolledo Rea says, and many families live up in the mountains in the rural area, traversing steep hills to get to the school and making plans to ride together.

“With icy and snowy roads, there’s more people at risk. It’s a hazard,” she says. “It’s a huge responsibility now, for you personally, to drive other kids that are not yours. So, even those carpooling are a little bit more hesitant about it when the roads are more icy.”

Rebolledo Rea, who lives in the Chupadero village 8 miles away from the elementary school her third-grader attends, describes carpooling to get around the bus route closure as “hit and miss” due to parents’ conflicting work schedules.

Her neighbor Kathleen Jimenez, the parent of two Milagro Middle School and Early College Opportunities High School students, says transporting her children to and from school every day has been “a juggle,” as she relies on different family members on alternating days of the week.

“In the morning, I take them to school, which is not practical,” Jimenez says. “Both of their schools are on the furthest side of town, and my job is on the north side. I’m supposed to be at work at 8 am, and I cannot drop my daughter off at Milagro until 8:15 or 8:20.”

Her boss allows some flexibility for school duties, but she now loses pay to cover the time needed to drop off her students.

Rebolledo Rea’s husband Andy Gomm says while families have stayed in touch to help each other deliver students to school, parents are still confused as to why their route was cut.

“If we didn’t have a bus driver, and they told us, ‘Hey, it might take us three or four weeks to find somebody,’ obviously we’d understand that,” he says. “But it makes no sense when we [did] have a bus driver.”

That driver was Roberto Gutierrez, who told SFR he resigned from the position he held for nearly five years after district administrators told him they were cutting his route. In addition to driving elementary school students to Tesuque, he also took middle and high school students to Milagro, Mandela International Magnet School, Early College Opportunities and Santa Fe High School.

“I felt for my students,” Gutierrez says of his decision to leave. “How can you leave these students with no transportation whatsoever? That’s so harsh on the kids.”

Gutierrez says the district offered to change him from covering the Tesuque route to being a “floater,” a driver who shows up at the Transportation Department’s building at 6 am and is given whichever vacant routes need to be filled. He says four of the canceled routes already had drivers.

SFPS Director of Transportation Cesario Flores tells SFR the decision to cut the routes will be temporary pending the hire of additional drivers and was based on the amount of students in the district who would be affected. Tesuque Elementary is the least-populated school in the district with an estimated 69 students this year.

Four new drivers are in training, with two a week away from taking their driving tests, according to Flores, who says the district will reopen routes on the outskirts of town first as positions are filled.

Gutierrez says the move felt discriminatory, and he contacted parents he knew to inform them of the bus route closing.

Julia Hansen, a parent of a student attending Santa Fe High, says she reached out to SFPS Director of Operations Gabe Romero and Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez when she heard the news from Gutierrez, and hasn’t received a response.

“The district’s explanation on the cancellation of bus routes didn’t really connect the dots for me,” Hansen says. “Our bus driver has left his position due to this decision. Instead of gaining anything, we’ve lost a lot, and in particular, it’s disproportionately impacting rural, at-risk students.”

Hansen describes her family as “one of the lucky ones,” as her daughter can drive herself to school. However, the recent snow has left her concerned about young drivers being forced onto the road.

Rebolledo also noted some Tesuque students now arrive just as the bell rings— which means they miss the school’s free breakfast.

“You don’t know if they had breakfast at home,” Rebolledo Rea says. “I feel sometimes that nobody cares or is listening, since we’re just a little school in the middle of nowhere.”

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