Loudoun parents decry plan for limited school bus service

Loudoun County’s decision to significantly limit bus service next school year is causing an outcry from parents who say new student walking routes are dangerous or inconvenient.

About 4,000 additional students will be expected to walk or find another ride to school — a change intended to save taxpayer money. But many Loudoun parents say the decline in services is not worth the savings, and about 100 parents have filed appeals.

“The school system has washed its hands of the responsibility for my kids’ safety” in getting to and from school, said Claire De Angioletti, a Leesburg mother who recently learned that two of her three children can no longer count on a bus ride to school.

That includes a rising fourth-grader who she would never leave home alone but is now expected to send off to school by himself, De Angioletti said. And her rising ninth-grader will “have to cross 15 lanes of active traffic in order to access her right to a public education,” she said.

De Angioletti was one of nearly a dozen parents who met with school transportation officials and her School Board member Tuesday in the Smart’s Mill Middle School parking lot to walk a proposed route and discuss the issue.

She brought her three children, with their backpacks, lunch bags, water bottles and a French horn. School officials carried clipboards, and one pushed a wheel that measured the distance foot-by-foot.

The School Board did not adopt a new transportation policy; rather, members decided to enforce an existing one that says bus service “shall be provided” to elementary school students who live at least eight-tenths of a mile from their school and for middle and high school students who live at least a mile away. In the past, many students inside those limits have been bused because of construction zones or traffic patterns that were at one time considered unsafe.

Board members — looking for places to cut costs, in part to close a $16 million shortfall between the School Board’s adopted budget and the amount of local funding the Board of Supervisors approved — studied the issue for months with school staff. Parents were notified of the new transportation plans last month.

School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) said the board’s priority is to focus resources on the classroom. “We are not in the transportation business,” he said. “We are in the education business.”

School officials have not released estimates of how much money they will save. The board also wants to encourage the health benefits of walking and to promote a greater sense of community around the schools, Fox said.

Walking to school in Loudoun County can be difficult, parents said. The outer suburb was developed around cars, and residential developments have piecemeal (or nonexistent) walking paths and sidewalks. In Leesburg, some of the schools were not built within neighborhoods but on vast tracts of land nearby.

The entrance road to Tuscarora High School is nearly a half-mile long — a distance not calculated into the new walking zones. And the proposed way to access Smart’s Mill Middle is via a long road that parents described as “desolate.”

The parents and school officials walked along that road Tuesday, moving aside occasionally to let a car pass. They turned left on North King Street and stopped at the corner of Battlefield Parkway, where they timed the red light at 18 seconds. The group discussed whether that would be enough time for children to walk across four lanes of traffic.

Fox maintained a can-do attitude. Problems could be addressed with better traffic signs and better timing of the traffic light, he said. He suggested that bus service could potentially be provided for a fee to families who really want it.

The group walked down Battlefield Parkway and turned into a residential neighborhood more than a mile from Tuscarora High. They came to a stop in one parent’s garage, where she had cold drinks waiting.

Fox said he was willing to take as much time as needed to address every parent’s concerns. But the parents said that with the first day of school approaching, they were running out of time. De Angioletti asked Fox to delay the implementation of the plan. She said she doesn’t believe it’s safe for her children to walk, meaning that she will have to arrange for rides.

“This is a huge monkey wrench in our lives every day,” she said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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