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With bus cuts looming, parents in Crown Heights, a low-income, predominantly Latino Oceanside neighborhood, are going to have to rearrange their lives or find the cash to pay for their kids’s transportation to and from school themselves.
Oscar Ahumada is out the door every weekday around 5 a.m. He drives his wife to a food distributor and then heads to his own job at a rubber products supplier in Escondido.
The family has one car, so Ahumada leaves his home in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Oceanside knowing that his three children will get to their middle and elementary schools on time thanks to the buses provided by the Oceanside Unified School District.
But those buses will stop showing up next year. District officials say they can no longer afford the transportation, meaning the parents in this low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood are going to have to rearrange their lives or find the cash themselves.
“I’m not going to let my kids walk in the rain,” Ahumada told me.
He was among a group of parents, students and teachers on Saturday who traversed the roughly two-and-a-half miles from Cesar E. Chavez Park to Lincoln Middle School in protest of the school bus cuts — a collective demonstration of what weaving through heavy traffic looks and feels like on foot.
They passed underneath I-5, where the sidewalk is only a few feet wide. They crossed busy intersections alongside Oceanside Boulevard as cars whizzed by and made the climb up Crouch Street, stopping to catch their breath near the site of a vegetation fire only a month before. There were moms pushing strollers.
“You feel like you could do this every day?” asked Karen Plascencia, an organizer with the grassroots group Human Rights Council of Oceanside.
School bus services have been disappearing across the county for years, most recently in the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego, where some students now begin their trek at dawn. Oceanside’s decline began nearly a decade ago.
In 2010, school trustees eliminated transportation throughout the district, except for students with special needs and those living on Camp Pendleton, which is only accessible via the freeway. More than 30 people, including drivers, dispatchers and mechanics, lost their jobs.
Earlier this summer, a state agency warned the district that it was teetering toward financial insolvency. The Union-Tribune cited bitter labor negotiations and declining enrollment as local charter schools grew in popularity over the last 15 years. To close a $7 million gap in the budget for this current school year, officials are now digging into reserves.
Matthew Jennings, the district’s director of communications, told me that Crown Heights is the only neighborhood in Oceanside that still receives bus services — and it’s being provided free of charge until summer 2020. About 100 children benefit daily.
Jennings said the district plans to contact parents to talk about before- and after-school options, so that driving to and from school is more manageable with the family’s work schedule. The district is also giving parents the choice of sending their children to a middle or elementary school that’s closer to Crown Heights than Lincoln or South Oceanside Elementary.
“We’re trying to make the transition as smooth as possible,” Jennings said.
Before the district waived the bus fee this year, Ahumada was paying $99 a month to ensure his three children had a safe ride every morning. (California is one of a dozen states that allows school districts to charge parents fees for bus rides to school.) Extending bus services beyond the current school year would cost approximately $114,000, meaning Ahumada would need to come up with $342 a month.
Paying that additional monthly fee would require Ahumada to find another source of income, he told me. But he’d have difficulty holding down a second job, he said, because his hours are limited by a medical condition.
Many of the folks who demonstrated Saturday see the school bus cuts as an equity issue, not just a financial one. Ellen Bartlett, a retired Oceanside High School teacher, acknowledged that Crown Heights is the last neighborhood with bus services.
“It’s not a question of being last,” she said, “but of who needs it.”
Trustee Eric Joyce met recently with community members to talk more about bus services. He told me he had “no comment at this time.”
The Crown Heights neighborhood was also the focus of an article I wrote last week about the poor state of community-police relations in Oceanside’s black and Latino communities. Researchers at USD joined forces with religious leaders to gauge perceptions of law enforcement and found high levels of mistrust.
A lieutenant at Oceanside PD told me that the results of the survey were startling and that police officials needed to do better. A recent forum at the Crown Heights Community Resource Center with law enforcement officials got tense and two police officers responded — after they’d been interrupted and prevented from speaking — by walking out.
One activist had complained that he was tired of being made to feel like a criminal in every interaction with Oceanside PD. He told law enforcement officials that they should talk less and listen more to the communities they serve.
After months of talks and the threat of a state audit, Tri-City Healthcare District officials are backing a plan to restore inpatient behavioral health services on their Oceanside campus.
The Tri-City board voted 7-0 last week to support a proposed agreement between the county and the district to build a facility that would supply 16 inpatient psychiatric beds. County supervisors are set to vote on the proposed deal next Tuesday.
The deal comes nearly a year after Tri-City shuttered its 18-bed inpatient and 12-chair crisis stabilization units — and two months after fellow supervisors rejected Supervisor Jim Desmond’s pitch to pull $14 million from the county’s reserves to help Tri-City open new inpatient and crisis units.
If supervisors approve the deal, the county would ultimately cover about $5 million of the expected $10 million cost for the new facility but would provide the district with an upfront, no-interest loan for the full cost of the project. The arrangement states that both the value of the Tri-City land and yet-to-be finalized incentives will be counted toward Tri-City’s loan repayments.
It’s not clear how soon the psychiatric facility could materialize, but the timing will be crucial for North County patients and families. Palomar Health is set to close its inpatient unit in downtown Escondido next year following the sale of its hospital property, potentially leaving North County without inpatient psychiatric beds for a time.
To address current and potential gaps in North County, the county has separately allocated cash to bolster Palomar’s crisis services. Officials say they are also continuing to work to deliver crisis stabilization units elsewhere in the area.
— Lisa Halverstadt