Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Longer walks for students aren’t safe, parents say

School board OKs a policy that allows superintendent to ask students to walk farther if fuel costs continue to rise

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Parents are criticizing a policy that gives school leaders the autonomy to increase how far a student has to walk to school if fuel costs for buses become unaffordable.

The county school board approved the policy on Monday, which gives Superintendent Jerry D. Weast the option of asking students to walk longer distances to schools in a fiscal emergency.

‘‘I’m not too happy about it,” said Gail Faucett of North Potomac, who has three children in the school system. ‘‘I think that parents are no longer having a say in the changes in the policy. I fear that the safety of the students will be jeopardized if it’s not reviewed properly. The safety of the children — ultimately — that’s the critical point.”

Under the plan, Weast must ask the school board for a waiver to temporarily adjust walking distances. The board can vote on the request only after allowing 21 days for public comment. But if board members agree an emergency exists, public comment can be waived without notice if the board agrees unanimously.

‘‘What would be the harm in waiting in full comment period at least as prescribed under the policy?” Kay Romero, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, asked the board. ‘‘Decisions involving students should not be done in a knee-jerk way and never should they be done without parental feedback.”

School leaders said they do not plan to increase walking distances next year. ‘‘All we’ve done is put forth a process if an emergency exists,” said school board Vice President Shirley Brandman (At-large) of Bethesda.

More children walking to school means fewer buses on the road, and that would save the school system money. During fiscal 2009 budget discussions, Weast warned that the rising price of diesel fuel has hampered spending. In the budget, which begins July 1, the system is projected to spend $7.9 million on fuel. And each time fuel rises by a penny, it costs the school system $33,000.

‘‘I know people are upset. I know people are upset about losing their current walking distance,” Weast said after Monday’s vote. ‘‘We are faced with the crude reality with a $5.3 million shortfall ... right now in June before we hit the July 1 budget. If oil goes back down to $6 a [gallon], I’d be just as tickled as anybody else, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Weast said he will ask the County Council for more money to offset the rising fuel costs.

Under the amended policy, elementary school students are not permitted to walk farther than a mile to school; middle school students cannot walk farther than a mile and a half; and high school students can’t walk farther than 2 miles.

Longer walking distances aren’t safe, parents say.

‘‘School buses are the safest form of transporting our children to school,” Romero said. ‘‘If bus service is cut, whether or not these affected children walk or ride, our children will be put at greater risk.”

Some parents whose children would be affected by the loss of the bus line have protested, saying that a long walk along busy Quince Orchard Road would be dangerous.

‘‘It’s a pure safety issue,” said Faucett, who lives about two miles from Quince Orchard High School.

In addition to safety issues, eliminating the bus route will lead to more drop-offs at the high school, contribute to traffic congestion and an uptick in carbon emissions, parent Stephen Kay said. ‘‘I think there are solutions other than with one fell swoop cutting the bus route,” he said.

However, increasing walking distances for children could indirectly address childhood obesity, said school board member Patricia B. O’Neill. Lawmakers and parents have pressed school systems to increase the amount of exercise students receive.

‘‘None of us know what the future will hold,” O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said of the waiver request. ‘‘I certainly hope we don’t have to fulfill this article of the policy, but we don’t know.”

Faucett said she is particularly concerned that her son, who is entering the ninth grade and will need to walk about 45 minutes to get to school, would be walking in the dark during the winter.

‘‘I have no problem with kids walking to school and getting exercise and being healthy,” Faucett said, ‘‘but I have a big problem when it come to the safety of my kids.”

Staff Writer Erin Donaghue contributed to this report.