With less than two weeks to go to the first day of school on Sept. 4, hundreds of parents are protesting against changes to Arlington Public Schools’ busing policies.
The changes include reorganizing and consolidating bus stops, assigning students to specific bus stops, and requiring students to present an APS-issued pass in order to board the bus.
To determine eligibility for the bus passes, APS used a computer program to calculate each student’s distance from their school. Elementary students less than a mile from their school, and middle and high school students less than a mile and a half from their school, will not be issued bus passes, and will be required to walk, bike or be driven to school.
The new distance calculations have resulted in some students who previously were able to ride the bus no longer eligible being to do so. That has many parents up in arms.
So far, more than 275 people have signed an online petition urging the school system to “stop the implementation of the new APS student transportation plan.” More than 185 have joined a Facebook group called “Arlington Parents for Safe School Transportation.” Many of the parents have the same complaints: that forcing students to walk to school risks their safety, and that there was not enough advance notice of the changes.
“I think it is ridiculous that you expect my 5 year old to walk to kindergarten. We are .8 miles away and have to cross over Glebe during rush hour,” wrote parent Jeremy Billy. “And drop off time is at 8:30am… pretty tough for single parents or parents that work. Perhaps this was not properly thought through. Please think this over and allow my child to ride the bus.”
“My 11 year old daughter will be attending Williamsburg MS in the fall. I received a letter stating that she was not eligible for bus service even though we live 1.7 miles from the school,” wrote parent Patricia Molteni. “It would take my daughter 35 minutes to walk to school — never mind how unsafe the route would be. My husband and I are both working parents and right now I don’t know how we are going to get her to and from school. This is extremely bad school policy to make this kind of change and surprise parents two weeks before school is supposed to start.”
“The lack of communication with affected families is really troubling,” wrote Mary Flannery. “People shouldn’t hear two weeks before school starts that their bus has been cut. I also believe bus transportation is a much better choice for our community than dozens more cars on the roads and in school drop zones.”
“There is the already mentioned safety issue of walking in the dark for much of the school year — both to and from school,” wrote another parent. “Why bother to send out alerts about the unsavory characters following, touching and causing distress to students if you are setting up a policy where more of these children are on the streets? It is very likely that there will be much more traffic congestion, pollution, possibility of accidents as the students who live close to the 1.5 mile cut off for bus transport will likely be driven to school.”
Despite numerous inquiries by ARLnow.com, a school spokesman was unable to provide the number of students previously eligible for bus transportation who are no longer eligible.
School administrators have said that the changes are necessary in order to save money and in order to improve the safety of students who do ride the bus. During a presentation to the School Board on Aug. 16, Arlington Assistant Superintendent for Facilities Clarence Stukes said the school system, which added almost a thousand students this year, is increasing the efficiency of its bus system so it can transport more students without the expense of additional buses and drivers.
“As we grow, we expect more students on our buses,” Stukes said. “But at the same time… we are not adding any additional buses to the fleet. Which is the first time in my tenure that we’ve grown but not added buses.”
Stukes said that, at least at first, bus drivers will not prevent students from getting on the bus if they don’t have a pass.
“We are not going to leave a child at a bus stop,” he said. Stukes added, however, that buses will become overcrowded if students and parents don’t follow the new system.
APS spokeswoman Linda Erdos said that restricting the how far a student must live from school in order to ride the bus is not new, but enforcing it is.
“We have had problems in the past when students who live in the walk zone walk outside the walk zone and get on the bus,” Erdos told ARLnow.com earlier this month. The bus pass system will also enhance safety, she said.
“The new system will let us know every student who is on a bus route,” said Erdos. “If something happened, this will let us know who’s on that bus.”
WTOP reported this week that the cost of adding a new bus and driver is $190,000. Erdos said it will be investing the money saved in education.
“Our priority is to add classroom teachers to teach children, not more buses,” she said.