Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Some walkers may still get to ride bus

Rockville PTSA, school system reach compromise on walking route

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A recent school board decision could be the last stop for the Rockville High School PTSA in its lengthy battle to continue bus service to the Manor Lake, Manor Woods and Rock Creek communities.

During a public hearing last week, the Board of Education unanimously voted to uphold a decision made in May by Larry A. Bowers, chief operating officer of Montgomery County Public Schools, that bus transportation to those neighborhoods be discontinued.

However, the board said it would allow students to utilize the one bus stop that remains on bus No. 5202’s route at Emory Lane and Sunflower Drive, even though it is not their assigned stop. That bus route is under capacity.

Although students in those communities live within the school system-approved two-mile walking distance from Rockville High School, bus service had been provided after school officials agreed with parents that the walking route — across busy Norbeck Road and down winding Baltimore Road — was dangerous.

During the Aug. 23 hearing, the school board agreed with Bowers and John Matthews, director of the school system’s Department of Transportation, that safety improvements made by the county and the City of Rockville have made the route safe for walking.

Jim Brown, a Rockville High parent and Manor Lake resident, spoke on behalf of the Parent-Teacher-School Association. About a dozen PTSA and community members attended the hearing to support him.

Over the past eight months, he said the PTSA and residents of Manor Lake and other nearby communities have been in contact with school and county officials. Through petitions, letters and e-mails, he said, they have presented their case that the walking route remains ‘‘hazardous.”

The PTSA began expressing concern when it learned bus No. 5202 would no longer serve Manor Lake, Manor Woods and Rock Creek communities. In January, former PTSA President Michael I. Joseph submitted a letter to Matthews, requesting that bus No. 5202 be redirected to serve the Lincoln Park and East Rockville neighborhoods and one stop each be added to two other existing bus routes to serve students who ride that bus.

Matthews did not grant either request, but in May, Bowers did approve the PTSA’s second request to begin providing bus transportation for students living in the Lincoln Park and East Rockville neighborhoods. The PTSA had argued that students in those areas might not have alternative means of vehicle transportation if they are not permitted to ride school buses, and that their attendance could suffer.

A month later, the PTSA submitted a letter to the board appealing Bowers’ and Matthews’ decisions. Brown’s testimony chronicled the difficulties of crossing at the intersection of Norbeck Road and Bauer Drive, traffic data the PTSA had collected from the Montgomery County Police Department from September 2006 to April 2007, as well as obstructions on the Baltimore Road walking path and traffic congestion.

After Brown finished, Matthews gave a presentation to the board, explaining the school system’s policy that elementary students can walk up to one mile to school, middle school students can walk up to 1.5 miles, and high school students can walk up to two miles from home to school.

A tenth of a mile could also be tacked on to any of those distances to establish a reasonable boundary.

‘‘Board policy is applied as equitably as possible from one school to the next,” Matthews said.

He likened Rockville High students’ walk to Richard Montgomery and Albert Einstein high school students having to cross Veirs Mill Road and Northwest and Seneca Valley high school students crossing Great Seneca Highway.

Through pictures he had taken himself, Matthews also reviewed the walk to Rockville High School. He said he had evaluated the situation extensively and stood by his earlier decision that the route is safe.

After the hearing, Stephen N. Abrams (Dist. 2) of Rockville said that while the board did not find Brown’s safety arguments to be persuasive, it did feel a compromise could be reached.

‘‘What was persuasive to the board was the fact that we have a practice that says if there is a route that has capacity the department can allow students to use that capacity,” Abrams said.

According to department records, he said, since there are only 12 students eligible to board bus No. 5202 at the Emory Lane and Sunflower Drive stop, the board thought it would be only fair to let the 41 ‘‘potential” students from the Manor Lake walking areas to use that stop because the two numbers add up to less than the bus capacity limit of 57 students.

‘‘We believe that will provide an equitable outcome for at least this year and we’ll keep on watching to see what happens with it,” Abrams said.

In an e-mail message to The Gazette Monday morning, Stan Thomas, Rockville High PTSA president, said the PTSA found the board’s decision to be somewhat fair.

‘‘I was disappointed with the decision not to uphold our appeal, however, every comment I’ve had from parents has been positive regarding the [Board of Education] decision to allow students not within the riding area to have the option of walking to the bus stop at Emory and Sunflower and take the bus to school,” he wrote.

At this time, Thomas said the PTSA has no further plans to appeal the board’s decision.