By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2009
When Loudoun County high schools raised the cost of parking permits from $25 to $200 this fall, students saw not only huge bills but also a blow against an inalienable right of suburban teenage life.
Driving to school is a cherished rite of passage, and the parking permit is second only to the driver's license in the suburban teen's Declaration of Independence from Mom and Dad.
Plus, in a community defined by sprawling shopping centers surrounded by acres of free paved lots, the concept of paying to park sounds vaguely . . . foreign.
"You're parking your car somewhere. Why should you pay for that?" said Brett Fulcer, 17, a junior at Heritage High School in Leesburg, where the lot is so massive that sophomores with licenses can buy permits and it takes at least 40 minutes for traffic to clear after school. Schools have different structures for who can buy a permit; at Heritage, all licensed students are eligible.
Principals use two words when responding to unhappy students and parents. The first is "privilege" -- as in, parking at school is a privilege, not a right. And it's a privilege that can be taken away for plummeting grades or too many tardies.
The second word is "bus."
"The big yellow school buses are always available," said Heritage High principal Margaret Huckaby.
Of course, principals, teachers and other staff members usually don't have to pay to park. But the school bus really isn't an option for them, they say.
In Loudoun, parking isn't the only fee denting wallets. Under a new system, student athletes have to pay $100 for each sport, and in the spring, the county will stop picking up the $86 tab for each AP test. But the parking permits have stirred up the most ire.
"Maybe next year there will be a fee to sit in a chair at lunch, because that's a privilege, too," said Russ Borman, father of a Briar Woods High School senior. "It just goes against what we would think is a normal and fair practice."
"You see it in the paper every day: The economy is down; people are losing their jobs. Then for them to try to hit up families to subsidize the budget?" said Jeff Brodbeck, whose daughter Michelle is a junior at Heritage. "It's not very family friendly."
School board members say they are trying to catch up to prices charged in nearby districts and need to make up for a $70 million budget shortfall largely created by cuts in county funding. Fairfax County also charges $200 for parking, but most schools in the Washington region charge less than $100.
Despite months of protests on Facebook, no Loudoun high schools has reported significantly fewer parkers, although several carpool groups share passes. There also hasn't been a surge in upperclassmen riding the bus, schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard said. The district hopes to raise more than a half-million dollars through the permit sales and is on course to do so, he said.
Daniel Hopkins, a student at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, and his friend Kelly Griffith, a student at Park View High School in Sterling, started a protest group on Facebook months ago that attracted 265 sympathizers.
But they caved the first week of class. They said they weren't willing to give up the thrill of driving to school, even if it ate up an entire paycheck from Target, where both work part time at the Starbucks counter.
"There's no way around it," said Daniel, who goes to school early to oversee the morning announcements and stays late for the drama club. "I have to drive."
Borman bought his daughter, Kerry, a permit before classes started so she can drive herself to work two days a week. "It's first-come, first-serve, and I didn't want her to not get one," he said. "It's a rite of passage. I drove to school."
Kaitlin Bledsoe, a Loudoun Valley High School senior who helped create another Facebook protest group, was one of the few seniors at her school who refused to buy a permit. She had planned to share a car with her mom this year, dropping her off at work in the morning and picking her up after school. But she couldn't justify paying $200, which is how much she makes every two weeks as a cashier at a wings joint.
So she picked the least popular option: riding the bus in the morning and walking home after school. Even when it rains.
"I'm the only senior on my bus," she said. "The only senior."
At first, Kaitlin said, she thought her age would give her some seniority and make her "one of the cool kids" on the morning commute.
But the underclassmen don't see it that way. "They don't look at you like a senior. They look at you as someone who didn't get a parking pass."