What if a school district evades its own rules?

September 8, 2013

Any parent who has fought a local school or school system, or thought about doing so, can learn from Bill Horkan and his battle with the transportation department of the Loudoun County Public Schools.

In June, schools notified the parents of 3,500 children that they were not eligible for bus service. They did not qualify under LCPS manual section 6-21: “Transportation shall be provided for all elementary students living more than eight-tenths (0.8) of a mile walking distance from their assigned elementary schools.”

Horkan, a Fairfax County high school math teacher with a love of precision, researched the matter and concluded that the rule does apply to many of those children, but not to his fifth-grade daughter and several other Algonkian Elementary School children in his Sterling neighborhood. It appeared the shortest route his child could walk from his house to the school was 0.93 miles, with six street crossings.

He was slightly off. The measurement had to be from the closest point on the parent’s property to the closest point on the school’s property, and not where the student would be dropped off. That distance was still more than eight-tenths of a mile. A transportation department official he called said the district’s data put it at exactly 0.8221 miles.

But his daughter was still excluded from bus service.

“It is only a little more than 0.8 miles,” the official said. Such statements demand a simple, non-threatening response. Horkan noted that section 6-21 “did not state that transportation services would be provided only to those students ‘a little more’ than 0.8 miles.” He said she told him that the school board had changed the policy so that if a student lived on a cul-de-sac or dead-end road, as Horkan does, the distance would be measured only to the bus stop.

The official denies saying that, but that is what Horkan heard, and he checked it out. His next step was something all parents should emulate. He called all nine school board members. In such circumstances, telephones are better than e-mail, and calling all board members is better than calling a few, if you wish to demonstrate the importance of the matter. Two board members, Jeff Morse and Bill Fox, called back that day. Both said the board had not changed its policy.

Horkan said they told him that if in fact the family lived more than 0.8 miles from the school, it was clear that transportation should be offered.

Horkan appealed the no-busing notice. The department missed the 10-day deadline for a response. He called again. Another official had what sounded like good news: A careful check had found the distance from his home to the school was more than a tenth of a mile beyond the 0.8 minimum.

“But we are still not providing bus service for your daughter,” the official said, according to Horkan. Horkan said he was told it was “a good walking route” and, anyway, the policy had been changed for dead ends and cul-de-sacs.

The official denies telling him the policy had changed. Horkan remembers otherwise and said he told her he thought it was odd her views were different from two school board members. When he appealed to Loudoun County School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick’s office, Horkan received an e-mail telling him no because “we evaluated the configuration and condition of the pedestrian infrastructure and find them to be within the parameters considered appropriate for access to the school property.”

It was the most meaningless statement yet. Horkan appealed, as was the rule, to a three-member board subcommittee. He won, 2 to 1, with yes votes from Thomas Reed and Brenda Sheridan. His daughter and several neighbor children climbed on the bus for the new school year.

Hooray for smart, persistent parents. Boo to school officials who try to evade their own rules.

For previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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