Santa Ana school kids walking the city’s busy streets to class may soon have to rely on volunteer crossing guards amidst a bitter political spat between some City Council members and local school district leaders.

Last month, a majority of City Council members voted to move forward with phasing out City Hall’s years-long practice of paying for school crossing guards, with some arguing that child safety was the Santa Ana Unified School District’s charge, not theirs. 

School district officials, in turn, have said they’re not liable for the public streets children use to get to school.

But for now, paid crossing guards will remain in town through at least 2026, with an expansion of the program to eight charter schools and a down-the-road option to extend the contract two more years after that, while officials hammer out some kind of new program.

And while City Council members have agreed to fund the latest $5 million crossing guard contract to ensure no gaps in safety services, uncertainties remain about how to pivot to all-volunteer.

“Implementing a volunteer crossing program will take time and still will need to determine whether or not such a program will be sustainable,” staff wrote in a report attached to the council’s June 20 discussion. 

It adds: 

“Although staff has reservations about the reliability and sustainability of a volunteer based crossing guard program, staff will be committed to work with the school districts in transitioning to an all-volunteer program for the continued safety of the school children.”

Any money saved by the phasing out of the crossing guard service will go toward safety enhancement projects in the City’s 2020 Safe Routes to School Plan. 

It comes after a tense debate over the issue in May – one that went deeper than just child safety, with council members like David Penaloza that month taking personal aim at some school board members and their use of district funds, even painting the picture of corruption in the city’s public education sector.

During the more recent June discussion, Penaloza said the city should also fund crossing guard services for private and charter schools. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to just provide it for the three traditional public school districts in our city,” Penaloza said.

Mayor Valerie Amezcua agreed:

“And then we have the Catholic schools and so, if we’re going to look at our children in our city and we’re going to talk about the safety of our children in this city, then it should not just be a focus on Santa Ana, Tustin and Garden Grove – $5 million is a substantial amount of money.”

Other council members – those who sided with the school board – disagreed on the need to pivot.

Councilmember Ben Vazquez, a school teacher, rejected the notion that Santa Ana Unified was sitting on a mountain of cash. 

“The school district is losing students because of the high cost to live here,” Vazquez said. “When you pass this you’re defunding children.”

Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez agreed.

“There are children who desperately need us to protect them, and although I don’t agree with the Santa Ana Unified School District not footing the bill, I want to urge my colleagues here that we were elected by residents whose families attend these school districts,” he said.

He added: 

“Let us be the leaders that those children deserve. We wouldn’t want volunteer cops. Why would we want volunteer crossing guards? We should pay for the highest level of service that our children and family deserve.”

Other council members like Jessie Lopez, however, expressed support for the volunteer idea:

“There’s a lot of people that are retired that want to get involved that want to help in some capacity, in some way, and I think that this is going to be a good opportunity for them to do so.”

Amezcua, arguing for discontinuing the crossing guard funding, turned the charges of disregard for child safety the other way.

“I’m not going to say no to this, of course I’m going to support it because we want our children to be safe and we want crossing guards, but I think it is … absolutely irresponsible on SAUSD’s part to have such a large projected end balance and they can’t even throw us a penny,” Amezcua said. “That’s how much the safety of our children matters to them.”

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