By Steven Tavares

With less than a month before the start of school San Leandro students may be without crossing guards at the start of the school for a second consecutive year. The city, already decimated by cuts to its workforce and services, did not allocate funding for crossing guards in its recently approved budget despite cries by a large number of parents and residents last year to reinstate the program.

The city and school district ultimately shared the roughly $100,000 cost of running the program in 2009, but only after parents and volunteers attempted to fill the gap in service for the first few months. A similar chain of events from last year is playing out again. Despite the loud criticism last fall, there was little talk among the city council during its long budget process for funding crossing guards. Mayoral candidates Sara Mestas and Stephen Cassidy alerted the council to the importance of the program, but like the year before, the city chose to forego funding.

“The proper time to raise their concern was during the budget process,” said City Manager Stephen Hollister. “Why didn’t they ask about it at the proper time?” Hollister said the city has already been forced to make drastic cuts to city employees along with the reduction and elimination of some services. The possibility of further cuts may be imminent if the quarter-cent sales tax measure slated for the ballot does not pass in November. He added there is no legal requirement for the city to provide crossing guards calling it a “municipal myth.” Hollister also said “there’s nothing to stop the [school] district from funding the guards.”

Mestas, who first gained city-wide attention over the issue last year says the city is taking a hard line on the program to bolster its chances at the ballot box. “They are playing politics with our children. It’s sickening they would risk the safety of our children for their bureaucracy,” said Mestas. “I think they are so busy at city hall thinking about their paychecks that they just don’t care.” Mestas says the cost of the program is paltry compared to the overall budget in addition to its cost savings. She fears an accident involving a child walking to school would incur large off-budget expenses to the city’s budget. “If a child gets injured or killed, how will they tell the parents it happened because they wanted to save 0.006 percent of their budget?”

Similar to last year’s resolution when both sides split the cost of the program, Mestas believes the city will reluctantly make a deal. “I believe the city will try their hardest,” she said, “but I think ultimately the city and school district will end up with the same deal.” San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos said he would support any cost-sharing plan with the school district.

One alternative could again involve volunteers but any chance they could pick up the slack appears remote. Mestas, who volunteered as a crossing guard last year at her daughter’s elementary school, says she already has parents lined up for duty. San Leandro School Superintendent Cindy Cathey, though, said while volunteers were helpful last year, too many logistical problems hamper the plan as a long-term solution. “Our experience showed that this is extremely challenging to maintain and sustain an all volunteer crew,” Cathey said. “Family circumstances change which creates mobility of the crew and can cause gaps in the service, especially as last minutes issue come up.”

The city and school district liaison committee will meet today to discuss the crossing guard issue. As school instruction in San Leandro begins Aug. 25, every day closer to the first day of school may renew anger in the city towards the its local government for inaction on a program many parents tie to overall public safety. A year ago, numerous council meetings featured a stream of critics who pilloried the city and school district for cutting off funding. Like this year, cuts to the program were approved well in advance of the coming school year, but opposition laid dormant as the opening day of instruction neared.