School busing policy faulted

Rules about who walks to school called unsafe

Officials to review guidelines

Routes often exclude kids living within 1-mile radius

December 28, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Sharon Kirin was trying to have her son's bus stop moved closer to their Eldersburg home when she found out that her 5-year-old would not be allowed on the bus at all for much longer.

With the roads of their new housing development nearly complete and their quiet cul-de-sac just eight-tenths of a mile from Freedom Elementary School, Kirin's son and 31 other neighborhood children were soon to be designated by the school system as walkers.

"That really surprised me because I had not realized that anybody walked to Freedom. It's on Route 32," Kirin said of the 50-mph, two-lane road that slices through Carroll County's rolling landscape, "and I couldn't imagine they'd have elementary kids walking on that road for any amount of time."

In part because of Kirin and her neighbors' persistence over the past three months, Carroll school officials are re-evaluating whether elementary school children should be walking to school at all.

"We've talked about busing all elementary students before," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "Now we're going to look at our policy and see if we want to change it.

"We need to see how many students we're talking about, what the cost would be, what effect it would have on opening and closing times of schools [and] if it's going to take any additional buses," the county schools chief said. "There are a lot of questions."

In a Dec. 18 letter to Jim Luther, one of Kirin's neighbors, assistant superintendent Stephen Guthrie wrote that a review of the policy, affecting the transportation of 1,500 elementary school children, is expected to take several months.

Kirin and some of her neighbors in Stone Manor and Strawbridge Estates housing developments expressed cautious optimism that school officials might finally be responding to their concerns. They contend that the roads between their homes and Freedom Elementary are too narrow, curvy and dangerous to walk and that the school's tiny parking lot is equally hazardous, clogged with the cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles of parents jockeying for space to drop off and pick up their children.

Others said they suspect the policy review is a stall tactic.

"The idea is that they give us a little bit of hope," said Billi Jo Swanson, whose second-grade son is among those the school system says should be walking to Freedom Elementary. "Then we get into this review process and people get caught up with summer vacations and are not organized to fight and keep this in the limelight."

Carroll school officials annually examine school bus routes and what they call "nontransport areas" - neighborhoods within a mile of a school that can be reached on roads with "acceptable levels of safety."

Of the school district's nearly 30,000 students, about 12 percent of elementary school pupils, 8.9 percent of middle-schoolers and 2.2 percent of high school students are not eligible to ride a bus to and from school, according to James Doolan, the school system's transportation services director.

Many of the elementary walkers, he said, attend schools that "were built right in the community," such as Hampstead's Spring Garden Elementary, Taneytown Elementary and Eldersburg Elementary.

At schools built amid farmland (such as South Carroll High in Winfield), in more commercial districts (such as Winters Mill High and Cranberry Station Elementary just outside Westminster) and on busy roads deemed unsafe for their lack of sidewalks or shoulders (such as Robert Moton Elementary), all children are assigned to a bus route, Doolan said.

But school officials know that their statistics do not reflect the actual number of walkers.

"We do know that a great majority of walkers are brought in by parent vehicles, especially at the elementary-school level," Doolan said. "In middle school, a great number of our walkers walk. And very few high-schoolers walk because they ride with friends in cars if they're not eligible for the bus."

Parents say that discrepancy deflates county school officials' arguments that the route is safe because children have been walking to Freedom Elementary for years.

"They may have been classifying them as walkers for years," Kirin said, "but they have not been walking for years." Besides, she said, "times change. Roads change. Speed limits change."

Intent on proving they are not inherently opposed to having their children walk to school, the parents gathered in Kirin's kitchen one recent morning brimming with stories.

Luther, whose 9-year-old daughter is a fourth-grader at Freedom Elementary, told of how much he enjoyed walking his children to school when they lived near Piney Ridge Elementary. "We walked that route in sun, rain and snow," he said. "We thought it was great."

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