The short line of cars waited in the shade next to the Palma Sola Presbyterian Church on 67th Street in west Bradenton.
It was 3:30 p.m. and soon, the yellow school bus would stop and unload eight students after a short but crucial ride from Anna Maria Elementary School on the island to the mainland.
Parents were fidgeting to get back to work or home. One had a vocal toddler in the back seat. All needed the transportation furnished by the Manatee County School District.
On Nov. 2, letters went out from the school district, informing parents who applied to have their students attend AME based on a hardship, typically a parent who works on the island or a family that recently moved from the island, that transportation between AME and the mainland would be discontinued Nov. 8. After protests that parents were left without sufficient time to make other arrangements, the district agreed to continue busing hardship students until Nov. 21.
The parents became a vocal force from the beginning.
“It’s definitely going to be a problem,” McKenzie Barrow said as she waited in line Nov. 16 for her son to arrive at the bus stop.
“But I will do whatever it takes to keep my son in Anna Maria Elementary. The school is that good,” Barrow continued.
“I just wish all schools could be like Anna Maria, then we would not be having this problem,” Barrow said.
Carson Pemberton, a second-grader and second-year student at AME, loves the school, his mother said. She has no intentions of transferring him to his zoned school on the mainland.
Carson’s mother said she didn’t receive a letter about the transportation ending. Rather, she learned about it from another parent.
Likewise, Jocelyn Greene, who previously lived in Holmes Beach and works in Anna Maria, said she was blindsided by the decision, finding out Nov. 10 from another parent.
Greene said she also did not receive a letter.
Mike Barber, school district spokesman, said letters were mailed to parents.
AME principal Jackie Featherston said the issue revolves around hardship students and choice students — two methods parents can choose to send students to a school outside of their home zoning district.
According to Featherston, students may hardship into a school at any point during the year.
She said if someone gets a job on the island and wants to change the child’s school from a zoned school, or if the family moves off the island during the year, say to west Bradenton, and they want the student to continue at AME, they apply for a hardship that allows the children to continue at AME.
“By signing the application, parents say they will be responsible for transporting their students to and from school daily,” Featherston said.
Students who attend AME under school choice are not affected by the bus-route change. The window for declaring a student as “choiced-in” occurs only once a year in March.
Choiced-in students at AME will not be affected by the transportation changes.
The reduced transportation plans also were blamed on a shortage of drivers and high absenteeism among drivers.
The district employs 150 bus drivers but needs 175 to run its full routes. The district runs 200 routes, carrying 16,000 students per day, countywide.
Before the driver situation became such a concern and the buses were not filled with students — there were two buses assigned to run AME routes and now there will be one. By consolidating two loads of riders into one route, there is no longer space for some of the mainland riders.
“We have kids who have been riding that route to Palma Sola for a number of years,” Featherston said. “I would encourage parents to use the choice window in March to re-categorize their students from hardship to choice, taking care of the issue.”
Meanwhile, parents like Greene and Barrow are struggling with their next move to keep their children at AME.
“We have not established a plan yet,” Greene said. “ I would have signed up for choice last spring had I known this would happen. We want continuity for the children. I may have to change schools next year if we can’t work it out…. It’s difficult.”
Barrow greeted Carson as he climbed in the car for the ride home.
“Whatever it takes is what I will do,” Barrow said, as the yellow school bus pulled away.