Rural districts feeling squeeze

The Education Beat

Buses: Long rides are a symptom of the ills of consolidation, some say.

January 22, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THERE'S NOT a lot of horsing around these cold mornings at the school bus stop 30 yards from my dining room window. The kids arrive at the very last second and huddle for warmth until the yellow bus pulls up precisely at 8:32.

These kids have it easy, though. Their bus picks them up and leaves them off when there's plenty of light, even in the dead of winter. In fair weather, they often walk to school, less than a mile away but across a busy street. They're bused more for safety than convenience.

It's a different story in the rural districts of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, where rides of an hour or more are 75 percent more frequent than in suburban districts like mine and where "double routing" - using the same buses to transport high school and elementary children - forces some to leave for school and arrive home in the frigid dark of night.

These kids have longer rides over rougher roads. Their buses often lack communication devices. And the children who take the longest rides tend to be from the poorest families, according to a recent study of nearly 700 schools in five states.

Donna Truesdell thinks she knows the culprit: a couple of decades of rural school consolidation in the name of efficiency. In Allegany County, she says, consolidation has forced ever longer rides and "broken up natural communities."

Truesdell, former member and president of the Allegany school board, is on a crusade to stop consolidation. She arrived at a breakfast meeting with me yesterday armed with hundreds of pages of material extolling the virtues of small community schools and challenging the supposed "economy of scale" claimed by proponents of consolidation.

"These people say consolidated schools are more efficient," says Truesdell, 58. "Well, if kids aren't learning, that's not very efficient."

The financially strapped Allegany board made national headlines in 1986 when it closed Bruce High School in Westernport and moved its students seven miles up George's Creek to Lonaconing. "We will never forget," says a bitter Thomas R. Marsh, the father of three who has been fighting for 17 years to reopen his hometown school.

At least the board converted Bruce to a middle school, diplomatically giving it and the Lonaconing high school the name Westmar.

But now there's talk of closing Westmar Middle, moving its pupils to Lonaconing and folding Westmar High's kids into a new school or the existing Beall Senior in Frostburg. That would reduce the number of Allegany high schools to three and leave the Potomac River town of Westernport with only an elementary school. This only three years after Allegany closed two schools, one of which was a high performer.

Any such move, says Marsh, "would be blindly irresponsible and arbitrarily against what the citizens want." In the name of an organization called Taxpayers Alliance for Fair & Honest Government, Marsh has done something that may be unprecedented in Maryland school history: He has filed an appeal of an action before it takes place, asking the state Board of Education to halt consolidation in Allegany. All five mayors of the tiny George's Creek towns have signed the appeal.

Marsh and those who agree with him also are concerned that Allegany legislators, at the request of the school board, may attempt to repeal a law limiting county school bus rides to 45 miles or one hour. (Pushed through the General Assembly some years ago by former delegate and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., the law applies only to Allegany.)

"Why would they want to do that," Marsh asks, "if they didn't want to make the rides longer?"

For her part, Truesdell, known as Dee, is building a network of support. She has met with the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. She wants a statewide task force on school facilities to thoroughly consider the small school. She thinks small schools can be the focal point of neighborhoods and communities, and she says such schools can receive state funding for setting aside up to 3,000 square feet of space to support recreational, health and other programs. (The head of the state school construction program agrees with her.)

"I've learned," says Truesdell, "that schools have to fit the communities rather than making communities fit the schools."

City to receive grant to bridge `digital divide'

3Com, the networking systems company, may have fallen on rough times financially, but it will announce tomorrow a grant of $100,000 to Baltimore City schools to help children "bridge the digital divide."

Baltimore is one of five cities receiving "urban challenge" grants from the company in collaboration with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The announcement will come at a mayors' meeting in Washington.

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