Proposed changes to school walking zones stir debate

Parents of schoolchildren who live in and around the Exeter neighborhood in Leesburg are organizing to keep school buses running in their community.

Some Exeter residents say that new walking routes proposed for their neighborhood are dangerous and that parents who drive their children to school instead of allowing them to walk will add to congestion on North King Street near Tuscarora High School and Smarts Mill Middle School.

Loudoun County public schools officials recently began informing parents across the county that their children will no longer be eligible to ride school buses next year because they live close enough to walk to school. Under the current transportation policy, bus service is not required for middle and high school students who live less than a mile from school, or for elementary school students who live less than eight-tenths of a mile away.

“The problem with [these] schools, and why these parents are so activated, is because the streets that these children have to cross are so dangerous,” said Terri Azie, an Exeter resident who is the parent of an eighth-grader at Smarts Mill and a 10th-grader at Tuscarora.

Azie, 52, singled out Battlefield Parkway as a particularly dangerous street to cross. Traffic “just flies” down the road, she said, and drivers often fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks. “There are no stoplights, just crosswalks,” she said.

“The distance is not a problem,” said Kathleen Hackman, 44, whose four children attend Tuscarora, Smarts Mill and Leesburg Elementary. “We’re big hikers. Our kids can hike for 10 miles. It’s not an ‘I don’t want my kid to walk’ kind of thing. It’s a safety issue.”

Azie started a Facebook page to share information about the new walking zones in her neighborhood soon after she learned about the planned changes. The page features dozens of postings from parents, along with information about the appeal process and tips for lobbying school and government officials.

While crossing Battlefield Parkway safely is Azie’s biggest concern, she said there are several other problems with the proposed walking zones. Some children would walk to school using footpaths maintained by the Exeter homeowners association, she said, and those paths are not always cleared promptly after snowfalls.

Azie also said that every student approaching Smarts Mill on foot would have to walk down Dry Hollow Road, which she described as “an isolated, desolate road” with no sidewalks.

“There are no homes there. . . . There are no eyeballs on that road,” Azie said. “It is catnip for criminals, pedophiles, muggers.” She thinks that parents who can drive their children to school will do so because of concerns about the safety of walking.

“So instead of one bus from my neighborhood, you’re now putting 10 cars . . . on the road,” Azie said. Because many parents have to leave for work early in the morning, some will ask their high school children to drive their younger siblings to Smarts Mill, she said. “So now you’ve got these inexperienced drivers on the road, fighting for space with 11- and 12-year-old walkers.”

Hackman, who lives on Oakcrest Manor Drive near Ida Lee Park, predicted that traffic on King Street, already heavy in the morning, will get worse.

“With everything the way it was last year, the traffic going to the high school would back up to my street,” she said. “So now, if you’re going to add all those additional drivers, it’s going to go all the way into town. And I can’t imagine the town wants that.”

Bill Fox, Leesburg District representative on the Loudoun County School Board, said changes have been proposed to walking routes for schools across the county to save money and to apply the existing transportation policy more consistently.

“It seemed like our policies were enforced very inequitably across the county,” Fox said. “Some folks were having to walk a mile to school and other people were being picked up in a bus a block or two from school with no real explanation as to why. And so we feel like the new walk zones are a little more universally applied and better reflect our existing policies.”

Alvin E. Hampton IV, director of transportation for the school system, said in an e-mail that changes in walking routes have been proposed in about half of the county’s 84 schools and will affect about 3,700 students.

“It’s not as if one community is being picked on,” Fox said, adding that “nothing is in stone.”

“There’s still some tweaking that we need to do,” he said. “We’ve got time to review appeals, and we’ve got time to change walk zones.”

Fox said the planned changes to walking zones resulted partly from cuts to the school system’s budget. Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III’s proposed budget for fiscal 2014 was reduced by about $34 million through cuts made by the School Board and the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s something we were planning on evaluating anyway, but the budget cuts made it more of an urgent matter,” Fox said. “When you reduce the size of government, you have to accept the outcome that sometimes there’s going to be a reduced level of service.”

The Loudoun County public school system “isn’t in the transportation business. We’re in the education business,” he said. “And so, if we have to reduce the level of services someplace, it’s going to be in something like transportation, not in classroom services.”

Hackman disagreed, calling safe transportation to school “a basic right.”

“The money that Loudoun County is going to save by not running [these] buses is nothing compared to what the county is going to pay out if a kid is abducted or assaulted walking to or from school,” Hackman said. “I just don’t think that it’s worth it.”

 
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