DES MOINES - An Iowa mother is fighting the Des Moines school district over a policy she says would force her 11-year-old daughter to walk nearly 2 dangerous, traffic-laden miles to school.
Jessica Bilotta told The Des Moines Register she's worried for her daughter's safety. Bilotta, a single parent, lives 1.7 miles from Merrill Middle School. Her daughter, Madison, will have to find some way to cross Interstate Highway 235 from a high-traffic area near her home on 64th Street on the west side.
"I have been so stressed, I've cried," Jessica Bilotta said. "It's boiling down to me having to move. But I'm renting a house, and I really can't afford to move."
Jessica Bilotta, left, and her daughter Madison, 11, pose for a photo in Des Moines, May 31. Des Moines Public Schools dropped a program in which parents could pay to have their children bused, like other metro districts. That's bad news for parents like Jessica, whose daughter Madison will have to walk 1.7 miles and cross I-235 to get to Merrill Middle School. Jessica is so upset her daughter cannot get a ride she has threatened not to send her to school, and it’s too late for her to open enroll in another area school district.
Elementary and middle-school students can ride public school buses for free only if they live two or more miles from their school. High school students must live at least three miles away.
Bilotta lives three blocks from the two-mile mark, and the most direct route to school involves some of Des Moines's busiest streets - some with no shoulder or sidewalks.
Bilotta said administrators denied her request to drop her daughter off before her job starts at 7 a.m. and pick her up after she finishes work at 4 p.m. Students are not allowed at the school before 7 a.m. and must be picked up by 3 p.m., Merrill Assistant Principal Diane Kehm told Bilotta in emails.
In the past two months, Bilotta has tried to talk to everyone from the assistant principal at Merrill to former schools Superintendent Nancy Sebring to interim Superintendent Thomas Ahart and school board President Teree Caldwell-Johnson. She's also contacted the Iowa Department of Education and Gov. Terry Branstad.
On Tuesday, she plans to address the school board.
"There are no children in my neighborhood in the same age range that get rides to school," Bilotta wrote Ahart in an email June 6. "I am to put a burden on a family that I don't know and ask them to transport my daughter to school? My child would be missing school if their child is ill?"
School officials have suggested that Madison walk an alternative route that bypasses the busy streets, hop a public bus near her home and transfer at the downtown hub, sign Madison up as a discretionary rider for a fee or carpool.
The Des Moines district waits to open up the paid busing option until after Oct. 1, when enrollment and bus routes shake out a bit.
But due to budget constraints, there rarely are any discretionary seats, Kehm said.
"We try to fill them to capacity," she said.