Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Preserving school bus service

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If fuel costs continue to skyrocket, the Montgomery County public schools superintendent now has special authority to move to eliminate school bus service for an indeterminate number of students to save money.

Under a 12-year-old policy, elementary school students living less than a mile from their school must walk, bike or get a ride on something other than a yellow bus. The walking-distance threshold for middle school students has been 1.5 miles and for high school, it’s two miles.

Flinching in the face of higher diesel prices, the school board last month empowered Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to increase those distances, if needed in a fiscal crisis, on the theory that making more children walk would reduce fuel consumption for buses and could save millions of dollars.

Another option, of course, is to ask the County Council for more taxpayer money to cover overruns and Weast has been masterful at rallying his constituents to pressure the council for more money.

The problem is real, as everyone filling up these days can acknowledge. Each additional penny in the price of a gallon of fuel translates into $33,000 in higher costs for the school system, which operates a bus fleet that rivals the public-transit systems in many large cities. In the past year, diesel prices have soared by more than $2 a gallon.

Throughout the debate that has surrounded the change, the superintendent and others have rattled off unpleasant options, such as cutting other services to preserve bus routes, and equating a million-dollar increase in fuel bills to what it costs to pay 15 teachers.

No hard-and-fast numbers have been released that explore the savings that could be realized from altering school bus routes, changes that even in the best of times bring howls of protest. Nor has there been open discussion about saving on other fuel costs, perhaps by turning down thermostats in buildings in winter by a degree or two.

One of the advantages of forcing more children to hoof it might be improved fitness, but it’s a thin proposition in this case. A federal health study shows that in 1969, roughly half of students in the country walked to school. Thirty-five years later, the percentage plummeted to around 15 percent.

Pragmatic parents are outraged, as they should be, over the prospect of amending walking distances. Many of their questions surround safety: Do sidewalks exist and are they in good condition? Is there adequate lighting, since school opens before sunrise for older students? Are intersections and crosswalks properly marked? There’s also the question of consistency in applying walk-or-ride rules countywide.

Eliminating bus service for a greater number of close-in pupils is certain to force more parents to drive their children to school. Those extra cars and minivans — even with carpooling — burn pricey fuel and clog roadways; add a few raindrops to the mix and the streets outside schools become gridlocked before and after the school bells ring.

Better ways exist to buffer the blow from rising fuel prices than eliminating bus service for close-in students, including a broad review of all costs, from labor to operations. The school system should continue with the kind of belt-tightening just about every family is forced to do itself when prices soar: getting a grip on spending and scaling back on extravagances. Bus service is not extravagant; cutbacks must be an absolute last resort.