The long rides in Allegany

February 18, 2003

FIVE MORNINGS a week, three school buses crisscross southeast Allegany County. They meet at the Oldtown Fire Hall, where the kids, ages 5 to 10, leave two of the buses and climb on the third. Then it's off on narrow, winding and hilly roads to Flintstone Elementary in northeast Allegany. The trip, which takes an hour from the most distant points, is reversed in the afternoon.

Welcome to rural school consolidation. Three years ago, financially strapped Allegany closed two small schools and moved their students to larger schools many miles away. In the case of the Oldtown School closing, kids transferred from near the West Virginia border to near the Pennsylvania line.

This year there's talk about another round of consolidation on the west side. A three-member school board majority wants to close the middle school in Westernport, move its students north to what is now Westmar High in Lonaconing and fold Westmar into a new school or the existing Beall Senior in Frostburg.

To accomplish these moves, the board has asked the General Assembly to rescind a state law that limits school bus rides in Allegany County to 45 miles or 60 minutes.

That seems callous to critics, who note that the children with the longest bus rides are among the county's poorest. The mayors of all five George's Creek villages have signed an appeal of the board's plan to the state Board of Education. For the Potomac River town of Westernport, it's a bitter pill. It lost its high school in the hotly disputed first round of consolidation 17 years ago.

How ironic that while big cities are breaking up enormous high schools on grounds that smaller is better, small towns are consolidating on grounds that bigger is more efficient. Schools can be too small, depriving kids of the classes and services they deserve, and Allegany enrollment continues to decline. However, none of the schools in this proposed reshuffling has fewer than 340 students.

The case for consolidation in Allegany isn't as strong as it ought to be. Citizens need to know more about the savings in closing the Westernport school, what needs to be spent to upgrade Beall's classrooms and labs, enrollment projections over the next several years and how much was saved in the consolidation three years ago.

Neighboring West Virginia caps elementary student rides at 30 minutes, which seems reasonable. The Allegany school board and the General Assembly should take note. Sixty minutes twice a day on an uncomfortable bus with no bathroom is too much for a first- or second-grader; commutes longer than an hour may be too much to ask of students of any age.

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