Shortage of buses forces Harford County students to cut field trips short

August 22, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Scheduling field trips for the school system in Harford County is an exercise in frustration. There are too few buses and too many students. There are not enough drivers and too many places to go.

And, field trips must be completed inside a five-hour time frame, often shortchanging youngsters the amount of time they can spend visiting the Walters Art Gallery, the National Aquarium or Fort McHenry.

Because of budget constraints, the school system owns and contracts for the bare minimum of buses needed to handle school routes. Most of these buses are the same vehicles used for field trips, meaning that they have to be available to transport pupils to and from school.

Consider the dilemma:

* Most buses assigned to a field trip can't leave school until 8:45 a.m. when the last elementary pupil is dropped off. Drivers must return by 1:45 p.m. to pick up high school students, who are dismissed at 2:15 p.m.

That can make it impossible to spend more than three hours at any given location, from the Baltimore Zoo to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., unless a school can arrange to use one of the only two county buses designated exclusively for field trips.

* The high cost of insurance has driven many contractors who supply buses for the school system out of the field-trip business, especially for trips outside the county or state.

As a result, schools must hire tour buses from private firms, which typically cost more than $350 per day, a fee usually paid by the PTA.

* The bus schedule is so tight that the school system's 35,000 students get on the average one field trip a year. Many PTAs hold fund-raisers to get more field trips, but parents get frustrated when trying to arrange the outings because of a lack of buses.

This year, the school system has budgeted 4,000 nonroute trips, about 22 a day. But the majority of them are for sports activities, academic contests, or trips which are mandatory, such as visits to the Edgewood High or Southampton Middle planetariums or the county's outdoor environmental awareness center at Harford Glen in Bel Air.

Paul E. Welch, Harford's transportation supervisor for schools, is charged with trying to make this cumbersome system work.

"We bend over backward to accommodate the requests that we get, but we can't begin to provide buses for every trip that everyone wants to go on," he said.

Mr. Welch said parents and teachers get annoyed because he can't supply the buses they want.

"My first priority is to get the students to school in the morning and back home at night," he said. "After that we will do whatever we can to make buses available but sometimes that is just not possible."

To hold the line on costs, the school system has increasingly contracted out for route buses, Mr. Welch said.

This year the school system will contract out for about 282 standard yellow buses for daily bus runs, he said.

The system, on the other hand, operates just 25 standard yellow buses, with about 64 seats each, as well as the two buses dedicated for field trips. There are 48 smaller buses for children with disabilities, but the use of vehicles is dedicated to those students, Mr. Welch said.

"Our biggest drawback is that we are greatly restricted in the distance we can go. Our furthest distance, unless we can schedule one of the dedicated field trip buses, is Washington," he said.

And that has PTAs wringing their hands.

Ruth Orf, at Havre de Grace's Meadowvale Elementary PTA, said time constraints limit first grade students to no more than two to three hours at the Baltimore Zoo and third-graders about the same amount of time at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.

"That's not a lot of time for children to spend at a place," Mrs. Orf said. She said that, while both of those trips are traditional, the PTA may ask teachers to consider shorter trips so the students have more time to appreciate a site.

Last year, for example, some students went on tours of Havre de Grace. Many had never been to the Decoy Museum or Stepping Stone Museum, a turn-of-the-century farm museum, she said. Other short excursions included visits to a local dairy and an orchard.

Chuck Heatwole, president of the Meadowvale PTA, said that hassles over arranging transportation can be irksome especially after PTAs have raised money to pay for field trip expenses.

Meadowvale's PTA has budgeted about $3,500 this year out of its $18,000 annual budget to make sure teachers can request a second field trip if they want it.

"As a PTA, field trips are our second highest priority, right after cultural events," Mr. Heatwole said.

The PTA doesn't expect to have much trouble raising the money, he said. Based on last year's sales, it will earn about $12,000 at its fall fund-raiser, Mr. Heatwole said.

Other elementary PTAs tell the same story.

"You can't plan anything at the last minute. Field trips have to be thought through very carefully," said Pat Wolkow, president of the PTA at Abingdon Elementary. "Raising the money is not difficult, but getting buses, that's tricky."

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