House passes busing bill for Chicago’s Safe Passage routes

SHARE House passes busing bill for Chicago’s Safe Passage routes

Over objections from Chicago Public Schools, the Illinois House overwhelmingly voted Thursday to require the system to provide free transportation to students who must walk to and from school along Safe Passage routes.

State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, the legislation’s chief House sponsor, justified her push by citing the gruesome December attack and rape of a 15-year-old girl on the way to school at about 5:25 a.m. near a Safe Passage route in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood.

Flowers said another motivation for her legislation, which passed 73-39 and now moves to the Senate, was the long walks students must make in unsafe neighborhoods after their schools were mothballed during an unprecedented, school-closing wave initiated after the 2012-13 school year by CPS.

“What motivated me to carry the bill was the passage some of these kids would have to go down,” Flowers told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I said, ‘Oh my god, I wouldn’t want my daughter to walk that route.’”

During the 2012-2013 school year, more than 260 shootings and murders occurred along current Safe Passage routes, according to a legislative analysis of her bill.

Existing state law requires school districts provide free transportation to students who live 1.5 miles or more from their schools and don’t have public transit as an option.

In Chicago, free busing is available only for students with special needs and for students whose schools were closed after 2012-13 and their new school is more than eight-tenths of a mile from their old school.

Flowers’ bill would expand the statute to require that Chicago offer free busing to all students who have to travel along Safe Passage routes, an expansion CPS says would cost $60.5 million annually in funding it now doesn’t have.

The South Side Democrat rejected the idea that the city school system can’t afford that cost. 

“All I can say is CPS has saved millions and millions of dollars,” Flowers said. “Look at how many schools they closed. Look at how many books they’ve not purchased.

“The children of the city of Chicago deserve to be protected and respected,” she said.

Police have charged Luis Pantoja with the sexual assault of the 15-year-old girl Flowers cited. Police say Pantoja struck her in the head with a blunt object, dragged her into a backyard in the 2400 block of North Long and raped her. She was found about 8 a.m. Dec. 17, bleeding in the snow, shoeless, nearly unconscious and pantless.

Pantoja, who is deaf and mute and goes by the nickname “Silent,” was accused of raping a 24-year-old woman last August less than a mile from the crime scene involving the 15-year-old. But the charges in the case involving the woman in her 20s were dismissed by Cook County Judge Laura Sullivan, who cited a lack of evidence.

Flowers’ legislation is backed by the Chicago Teachers Unions, the Illinois AFL-CIO and Illinois Federation of Teachers, but CPS has recorded its opposition to her bill. 

Calculations by the school system show that 53,500 students are enrolled in schools with safe-passage routes. To move that many students would require more than 1,800 additional bus runs each day, CPS has estimated.

CPS condemned Flowers’ bill late Thursday.

“HB3662 is a misguided and overreaching attempt to dismantle CPS’ popular and successful Safe Passage program that brought together 22 community groups to work with [the Chicago Police Department], the community and schools to prevent any major incidents involving students on Safe Passage routes near Welcoming schools during the program’s hours,” CPS spokesman Joel Hood said. “If adopted, it would cost taxpayers $600M over the next 10 years and eliminate 1200 community based jobs.” 

During floor debate, opponents from the collar counties and Downstate rose to express concern that the cost of the new bus service eventually would be borne by state taxpayers, siphoning away transit money for school systems elsewhere in Illinois.

“We’re already not getting full transportation money. This would make that problem even more acute throughout the state without really solving the problem this bill was intending to solve. I think there are a lot of unintended consequences,” said Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who voted against her bill.

Franks said he is sensitive to keeping children safe in Chicago and, in particular, the plight of the 15-year-old girl Flowers cited. But he said he believes the Chicago Police Department, for example, could play a heightened role in making sure children get to school safely that might be less costly.

“I believe there are cheaper alternatives to solve this problem. It’s a serious problem. But the solution the sponsor came up with could take $60 million out of classrooms in Chicago that they can ill afford,” Franks said.

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