By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The Montgomery County school board last night approved a change to its transportation policy that gives officials emergency powers to extend the distances that students walk to school next year if rising diesel prices leave the school system in fiscal distress.
Fuel costs have more than doubled in the past four years for Montgomery schools, echoing a trend among large systems in the region and around the nation. Montgomery officials project $7.9 million in diesel costs in fiscal 2009, which begins next month, compared with $3.6 million in fiscal 2005.
"I'm very glad the board had the courage to put this on the table," said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who had requested the change.
"I know people are upset. I know people are worried about losing their current walking distance," Weast said. But he said spiraling fuel costs could force the school board to choose between scaling back service and cutting textbooks or not replacing teachers. "And trust me, having been here a decade, nobody wants to do that, either."
The revised policy, updated repeatedly in the days before yesterday's meeting, states that Weast can apply to the board for a waiver to temporarily adjust walking distances "in exigent circumstances." The board can act on the waiver request after at least 21 days of public comment. The board can waive the comment period and act immediately if the panel "deems an emergency exists," but only following a unanimous vote of the full board.
Kay Romero, county PTA president, said her group opposes the change because the policy could create a scenario in which parents have no chance to voice their concerns.
"Are all the board members going to go out to these bus routes and walk them?" she asked. "Parents should always be heard."
Officials have not said what circumstances might prompt them to scale back bus service, although Weast noted at a previous board meeting that a million-dollar fluctuation in fuel costs would equate to roughly 15 teaching positions. Board member Sharon Cox said the policy language was crafted to ensure that any action on walking distances "would have to be a real thoughtful decision."
Students typically have bus service if they live more than one mile from an elementary school, 1 1/2 miles from a middle school or two miles from a high school. The board last changed walking distances in 1996, extending the greatest walking distance to high schools from 1 3/4 miles to two miles. Dozens of parents telephoned the school system to protest, and several petitioned the board in person.
Parent activists raised many questions about the new proposal: Which of the three school levels might be asked to walk farther? Would granting special powers to the superintendent set a bad precedent? Parent Kim Donohue, writing on an e-mail list, speculated that longer walking distances might expand the county's collective carbon "footprint" by causing more parents to drive their children to school. "Isn't this a politically correct county?" she wrote.
School systems are affected by rising fuel costs in much the same way as the general public, but on a grander scale. Large systems manage hundreds of buses, with each bus averaging perhaps eight miles per gallon. Diesel that cost $1.50 to $1.75 a gallon in summer 2005 now costs more than $4 a gallon.
To maximize fuel efficiency, systems around the region are limiting idling time or curtailing miles traveled with no riders. They are also combining routes, eliminating stops and using mapping programs to reduce miles of travel.
In Loudoun County, diesel prices have increased by $2 a gallon in 12 months, from $2.30 a gallon in May 2007 to $4.28 last month, according to transportation director Michael Lunsford. The Prince William County system has budgeted $5.8 million for diesel in fiscal 2009, an increase of 40 percent. Fuel costs have more than doubled since fiscal 2005 for the Prince George's County system. A Fairfax County schools spokesman said yesterday that the system has budgeted $11.4 million for bus fuel in fiscal 2009. Fairfax's initial projection was $8.4 million.