Longer walks. Crowded buses. Late arrivals. Those are just some of the complaints elected officials and school administrators have been fielding from irate Prince George’s County parents since classes began several weeks ago.
The Prince George’s County school system rolled out a transportation policy in August that raised the distance elementary school students walk from one mile to 11 / 2 miles. The result: 1,400 more elementary students who used to take the bus now walk.
The new policy also has reduced the system’s fleet by 130 buses, combined middle and high school students on some of the same routes, consolidated drivers’ bus routes, and cut the number of stops by 2,350.
Earnest Moore, president of the Prince George’s County PTA Council, said that parents have shared their concerns at PTA meetings.
The backlash over the policy from Prince George’s parents is similar to the response in Arlington County, where a new plan this school year forced more than 1,000 children who had taken the bus to school to now walk instead.
Under tight budgets, many school systems have routinely looked at bus services in reducing overall costs. Last year, Prince George’s school officials said the changes had the potential to save up to $10 million.
Council member Mary Lehman (D-Laurel), who worked with a group to recommend changes to the transportation system last year, expressed her concern to school officials recently when they gave a briefing on the new transportation policy.
Lehman asked how many high school students are allowed on a bus. Thomas Bishop, the director of transportation, said that each bus can legally carry 65 high school students but that the school system tries to keep the number closer to 50.
“My daughter said there were 70 students on her bus,” Lehman said. “One day, she sat on the floor.”
Bishop said officials have asked parents to alert them about overcrowding. “We do not tolerate students standing on the bus,” he said.
Some parents mentioned buses’ late arrivals and said they were worried that their children’s tardiness could affect their studies, noting that missing 20 minutes of an Advanced Placement course could set them behind.
Bishop said that drivers have been running additional routes to cover a driver shortage and that late arrivals should end when more drivers are on board. This month, the school system hired 40 more drivers, who are now being trained.
Council members expressed concerns about the safety of the routes some children have to walk, noting high-traffic roads, busy intersections and streets with no sidewalks. They suggested that school officials travel those neighborhoods.
And council member Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland) said she is adamantly opposed to middle school and high school students riding on the same bus. “The conversations that an 11-year-old and a 17-year-old can have are totally different,” she said.
Last year, the council’s education committee asked the school administration to look for ways to make the transportation system more efficient and cost-effective. A task force was created, and it studied the county’s infrastructure, school bell times, school boundary planning and ridership. It also looked at routing.
Council member Derrick L. Davis (D-Mitchellville), head of the task force, said that he supports the changes but that he expects that school officials will review the policy. “We told you, ‘Let’s be more efficient,’ ” Davis said. “Maybe we didn’t say ‘safety’ out loud, but that’s what we wanted.”