School Bus Rule Is Behind Times

COMMENT

August 08, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Back when I was in school . . . kind of makes you want to stop reading right there, doesn't it?

Anyhow, the subject is school busing. I used to live a little less than a mile from the elementary school in the small town where I was raised. A classmate lived about three blocks farther down the street. He was eligible to ride the bus home; I was not, because my house was too close to the school.

On some days, we would walk home together or go to the Cub Scouts meeting. But mostly, as I remember it, his face would be peering from the window of the yellow bus as it whizzed past me a couple of blocks from the school. I don't think it provoked resentment, this apparent discrimination, only the fleeting disappointment of not being able to share the walk with a companion. Once I asked the school secretary if I could take the bus with my friend and was told of my disqualifying proximity.

In those days, the school buses left on schedule whether you were on board or not. And no one seemed much concerned that small kids walked a mile or so by themselves along the sidewalks and in the road. I wonder if that is still the attitude of the town, which is only a bit larger than back then. The last time I was there, I didn't ask anyone about the subject. (Although I did learn that the distance from school to home was 9/10 of a mile by the odometer.)

The childhood reminiscence arose amid the Harford County school board's recent discussion of its 30-year-old standard for determining which children are entitled to ride the bus and which are not.

While it did not alter that rule, the Harford board held out the possibility of reviewing it in the light of a rapidly changing county with three times the population and at least as much more traffic than in 1960.

Indeed, the issue today is not that small legs have grown weaker, that our children have become softer and demanding of motor transportation to every destination. The parental concerns are about safety, from the proliferation of auto traffic and the predations of potential child abusers.

Schools are doing much more to educate youngsters about these possible dangers, which is a good thing. And there are more adult crossing guards along some routes. But these measures are not as effective as placing children on a bus when they live more than a few blocks away.

The suburbanization, the urban sprawl of Harford County has changed the nature of its schools. They're no longer divided between community-located schools within easy walking distance and the consolidated rural schools that require busing. The pupil catchment limits of suburban schools spread with new housing units.

Only in the last year or so has Harford adopted an "Adequate Public Facilities" measure to limit development in overcrowded school districts. Meanwhile, kids ride the bus or not according to a 1960s view of development patterns.

Parents who prefer to drive their kids or want them to walk to school are free to make that choice. There are certainly concerns about busing safety: the dangers of waiting on the corner for the bus and crossing the road, the chaos of a rowdy bus-load of kids, the necessary rigidity of a bus schedule. And yes, even the ongoing criminal behavior of motorists who still don't stop for a school bus with flashing lights.

But the main objection is always the extra cost. In Harford, which stays near the bottom in per-pupil spending, that is a particularly persuasive argument. The cost of new buses to carry elementary school students who now walk would be $2.5 million, school board members estimate. (Remember, Harford officials didn't think voters should be able to decide whether to provide bus transportation to students in private and religious schools last year.)

Fact is, busing would get a lot more children to and from classes safely, which should be the primary consideration. It would also eliminate a lot of auto trips by parents bringing their children to school, at a time when the county is under pressure to reduce vehicle traffic to meet federal clean air quality mandates. And how many trips and extra cars would be eliminated if secondary school pupils could be bused even if they lived inside the 1 1/2 -mile limit?

It's not as if authorities objected to adding costs to the school bus budget. Harford is going to spend more money this coming school year on random drug testing of bus drivers. It's spending more money on delayed bus schedules at Jarrettsville Elementary to provide teachers with planning time, and could extend that program to accommodate teachers at other elementary schools.

Increased busing would also allow for more effective redistricting of Harford schools to better use existing under-capacity schools and provide some relief from the ever burgeoning costs of building more new schools. Admittedly, busing isn't as much an issue in redistricting as a lot of other considerations, but that's another story.

The immediate issue was raised by parents in the area of the new Fountain Green Elementary School, who asked for an exception to the one-mile rule because of the dangerous traffic crossings for their children. Their worries are understandable, even if the school board was right that this specific case did not warrant a waiver.

But it's incumbent on the Board of Education to follow through with creating a committee to re-examine the yesteryear rule that ignores today's realities. It's time for the school board, as well as a lot of Harford school children, to stop missing the bus.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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