REDLANDS - Riding the bus to school next year will not be an option for many students after a vote by the board of education to eliminate home- to-school transportation for most high school students.

It's a decision that will leave about 2,500 students, like 16-year-old Keith Johnson, on their own when it comes to getting to and from school.

Keith rides a school bus seven miles from his Loma Linda home to Redlands High School. He said the cut will put a strain on his family.

"It's a bummer because I have a single parent and she goes to work, and it's not much help if she has to drive me," Keith said. "I'll probably end up taking a city bus. That won't be much help either, having to spend money and all."

A 31-day pass on an MNI Omnitrans bus costs $35 for students.

The decision to cut high school transportation came as part of the district's budget- reduction plan for the 2010-11 school year, necessitated by a statewide reduction in school funding.

Bus drivers said many students will be in the same predicament as Keith. Most riders come from lower income families with parents who may find it difficult to find alternative transportation.

"The majority of our riders qualify for free busing because of parent income and the number of kids in their family," said RUSD Director of Transportation Imogene Johnson, who also drives a bus.

About 5,000 students ride district buses, said RUSD Superintendent Lori Rhodes. Of those, about 2,500 are high schoolers who will be affected.

Only special education students, those who attend schools of choice, and students living in Angelus Oaks and Fallsvale will still have bus services, Rhodes said.

Transportation employees worry that a lack of buses will hurt academic performance and create an unsafe environment.

"There is a grave concern that there will be students who can't get to school," said Jolene Tripp, bus pass coordinator and president of the Redlands Education Support Professionals Association. "I just can't see when you take the largest group of students and stop giving them transportation that nothing would happen."

Jacalyn Condley-Jennings, a RUSD driver for 19 years, said she has heard students "panic" about how they will get to and from school. Often, kids ride the bus because their parents work, their family does not have an extra car, or they do not have a license.

"I live with my uncle and, since he's unemployed right now, it's going to be difficult, having to pay for gas to go to Redlands every day, in the morning and afternoon," said 14-year-old Kaela Trowel, who lives in Redlands.

"I think that will really take a toll on us," Kaela said. "If he takes a job, it will be in the morning because he doesn't want to take an evening job because he doesn't want me to be home by myself, so it will still be really, really hard."

Drivers also worry about the safety of students left to walk or ride public transportation.

"We hear every day about young males and females getting abducted," Johnson said. "For some of these kids, it's barely sunlight when they have to head to school. It's still dark out for some. We are putting these kids in an unsafe environment."

Parent and bus driver Dechelle Cauley said she has been looking for a safe walking route for her children who ride the bus and will be in high school next year.

"I've got to find a way to get them to school; my husband and I both work," Cauley said. "I've been trying to find a route for them to walk, but there are no sidewalks, and the speed limit is 50 or 55 miles an hour here. That would be crazy to let your kid ride a bike or walk. I'm super concerned about the kids who are stuck in this predicament."

They especially worry about students who live on the outskirts of the district.

"The majority of students live far away," Johnson said. "We transport a lot from Loma Linda. My farthest stop is Redlands Boulevard and Tippecanoe (Avenue)."

The district hopes that with the opening of Citrus Valley High School, students will not have to travel as far, Rhodes said. 

Bus riders may also miss out on a positive start to their day, drivers said.

"Every student from elementary to high school gets a good morning because you never know what happened to them before they got on your bus," Johnson said. "I'm a counselor, I'm a teacher, I'm a mother to these kids. I take it very seriously. Nobody gets into bus driving for the money or the respect. They do it because they love the kids."

Some students may stop coming to school, thereby costing the district money in Average Daily Attendance funding, drivers said.

Rhodes said this has not been the case with other districts who have cut transportation.

"Typically, when districts cut transportation, parents rise to the occasion and do right by their kids," Tripp said.

This was true in the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District, which has not had high school transportation for more than 15 years, and will stop transporting elementary students next year. They will only provide transportation for special education and school of choice students.

"Last year we cut middle school transportation, and we didn't see a drop in our ADA," said Superintendent Sherry Kendrick.

The other major area of concern associated with the cut is what it will do to transportation employees.

"I do think some people are going to lose their jobs and some are going to have their hours cut," Tripp said.

The district does not have definitive information about how many, if any, of the 60 transportation employees could be laid off or have hours cut, said Sabine Robertson-Phillips, assistant superintendent of Human Resources. But bus drivers said they have an idea of what to expect.

"Everybody is going to have one quarter to one half hour cut from their working day," Johnson said. "They've already told us that."

While that may not seem like much to employees looking for benefits, it is significant.

"We have to have 6 1/4 hours to receive benefits," said Condley- Jennings, who said benefits have kept her in the district. "If someone's hours are cut even by 15 minutes, they won't get medical, dental, vision, retirement. It's going to affect a lot of bus drivers' benefits. Some of the drivers just made 6 1/4 hours before all this happened."

About 90 percent of RUSD bus drivers are already part time, Johnson said. The majority of them are single parents on single pay.

"A lot of drivers depend on this as their income," Condley-Jennings said. "I don't know if some of the bus drivers will be able to make it."

Depending on how much more the district will be forced to cut, drivers may lose additional time from their workdays. If cuts reach into level four of the RUSD reduction plan, the district will adjust all school's start and end times to condense the workdays of drivers.

Transportation was one of many areas cut as part of the most recent $11.68 million reduction. In choosing where to cut, the district tried to minimize the number of students impacted, Rhodes said.

Annually, RUSD spends about $2 million to transport about 5,000 of its 21,000 students, Rhodes said.

The elimination of high school transportation should save the district $775,000, and the bell schedule changes would save $600,000, said Sherryl Avitabile, assistant superintendent, Business Services.

Transportation employees said while they wish the district would not cut their department, the elimination is not the district's fault.

"We're not putting blame on the district," Johnson said. "The cuts have to come from somewhere."

Drivers are especially understanding given that the district receives no money for transportation purposes.

"The law requires kids to go to school, but there is no provision for how they do that," Tripp said. "There is no state money for transportation. It is not required by the law that the state provide funding."

The district said all reduction decisions have been made with great difficulty and consideration. They said the state continues to force more cuts while expecting them to educate students.

"One of the things that is most difficult for us is that we've spent the last decade putting in support programs for students to be successful, and now we are having to cut what has been our safety net," Rhodes said. "It has been very frustrating, very difficult."

District employees and officials continue to ask parents, students and community members to contact their state legislators to tell them of the personal effects they experience resulting from cuts to education.