Modified bus policy makes no cents

July 18, 2008, midnight | By Sonalee Rau | 15 years, 10 months ago

Weast's cheap suggestion is a step in the wrong direction

For Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) students, a new bus policy means it is time to get out the old walking shoes. Old MCPS bus policy stated that high school students who live within two miles of their schools must find alternate transportation, as must middle school students who live within one and a half miles of their schools and elementary school students who live within one mile of their schools. A modified policy will allow Superintendent Jerry Weast to bend these limits when necessary if diesel costs place undue financial strain on the school system. The Board-approved plan has been modified to include a three-week period for public comment after Weast suggests a route change, which had been completely left out of the original version. Even with this addition, the new policy will compromise student safety, burden taxpayers and hurt communities in myriad ways.

Superintendent Jerry Weast, above, commended the Board of Education for approving his new bus policy in June. Photo courtesy of the Board of Education.

A school district already scaling back on county resources and programs in so many ways, including the budget cuts being dealt to schools around the county, is surely not qualified to make the claim that eliminating the most basic of conveniences - student transportation to and from school - will significantly reduce financial strain on it. Proponents of the policy change assert that cutting transportation is a more effective solution to budgetary issues than cutting education-related spending on resources such as textbooks. They overlook the fact that nothing could be more directly related to education than ensuring that a student gets to their institution of learning in a safe and timely manner. In fact, school buses are essential for many students' academic success. Unmotivated students might not feel compelled to attend school without a bus to take them there and instead end up compromising their academic futures by engaging in other dangerous or criminal activities.

MCPS financial issues lie only at the surface of the controversial proposal, though. While the new measures would appear to undercut pollution from buses, parents who oppose the changed policy would likely end up driving their children to school, exacerbating pollution and contributing to traffic.

A blatant disregard for the safety of students is perhaps the most disturbing implication of the new policy. Young students, especially, run the risk of being hurt while walking and may have to be supervised by adults, whose busy schedules will be disrupted. Children are also vulnerable to kidnappers and predators while walking unsupervised. The dangers that vehicles pose to students walking to school could be compounded by winter road conditions as well as early morning school start times, which will mean walking in darkness for many high school students. Walking also enhances risk for disabled students or students with medical conditions. For those students able to walk, exercise would be a benefit of the policy change – but other measures, such as increased physical education requirements, would accomplish the same outcome without coming at the cost of student safety.

In truth, it is the people impacted by the policy who should have had a say in making it: the students whose safety is at risk, their overstretched and worried parents and the communities around schools that will face more pollution, more traffic and potentially more vagrant youths not attending school. In the meantime, the county continues to spend extravagantly on less urgent projects such as installing an artificial sports turf at a local high school, continuing to increase the burden on taxpayers while proposing that the welfare of MCPS students be at stake every morning and afternoon.

There are ways to remedy MCPS's chronic budgetary difficulties besides completely doing away with a means of transportation provided to several students around the county. If bus fuel costs must be cut, the number of stops in a neighborhood can be reduced without completely eliminating the service to everyone within walking radius – and this diminution in expenses must be supplemented by smarter spending and fundraising on the part of the county. In the end, there are some things money can't buy – a healthy environment, student safety and peace of mind for county residents. The price of diesel may be going up, but it does not outweigh the price of endangering our students and communities on a daily basis.

Sonalee Rau. Sonalee (suh-NAH-lee) is a chipper Chipper and a would-be magnet junior. She spends a great deal of time playing tennis (Blair is red hot), doodling, reading, quoting famous people, quoting not-so-famous people and lamenting her inability to play the piano. She is also a big … More »

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