Hundreds of angry parents last night packed a hearing room at city school headquarters to protest a cost-saving proposal that could eliminate contracted bus service to up to 17 schools, starting in September.
"How can Baltimore be a 'City That Reads' if the children can't get to school safely?" said Cherisse Dotson, whose children attend Yorkwood Elementary, a Northeast Baltimore school that would lose bus service under the proposal.
A top school official said that some schools are bound to lose their bus service because of budget cutbacks approved by the school board. "The dollars have been eliminated," said Patsy Baker Blackshear, deputy superintendent for management services. She added that some of the targeted bus service could be continued if officials found that there was no safe or practical alternative.
At issue is the elimination of non-mandated bus service for up to 3,400 students at 16 elementary schools and one middle school, a move that school officials say would save $600,000.
Those students get service for a number of reasons -- because they live along busy roads, because of school overcrowding, or to achieve racial balance. In addition, the city provides contracted bus service to about 4,000 special education and disabled students, whose service is required under state law and is not affected by the proposed changes.
The majority of Baltimore's 110,000 students walk to school. About 20,000 students use Mass Transit Administration buses to get to school.
The elimination of non-mandated service was formally proposed as part of the school system's fiscal 1993 budget.
Last night's hearing was supposed to give parents a way to comment on "alternatives" to contracted bus service, which could include crossing guards, sidewalks and more MTA transportation. But parents and some public officials weren't willing to let the matter rest.
"We're dealing with taxpayer dollars, and these people pay dearly in Baltimore City," said state Sen. John A. Pica, a Democrat whose district lies in Northeast Baltimore.
"They don't want to send their children on the MTA -- I wouldn't want to send my first-grader or second-grader."
Parents warned that the cutback would force small children onto dangerous streets infested with drug dealers or make them cross heavy traffic to get to school.
"While saving thousands of dollars, you're putting our children's lives in danger," said Vickie Burks, a Bentalou Elementary parent.
Some parents even threatened to keep their children home from school, rather than make them walk or ride public transportation.
"I will not have my daughter hurt, shot, taking drugs," said one mother. "She will not got to school if she does not have a way to get there."
Dr. Blackshear said the school board is expected to get a final transportation plan by mid-May.
The next hearing is slated for 6 p.m. on Thursday at the school headquarters at 200 E. North Ave.