To save money, Fairfax schools may change bus boundaries

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Almost everyone has a grandparent who claims to have walked two miles to school every morning. Uphill. In the snow. Etc.

In Fairfax County, it could soon be your 12-year-old trudging to school.

Hard times have a way of making old ideas seem new. With nothing but grim budgets ahead, some members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors want the county's schools to save money on buses by encouraging more kids to walk to school, perhaps by moving back the boundaries for bus-riding eligibility.

It's an idea that has received more attention nationwide in recent years as a way to fight child obesity, reduce air pollution and ease traffic. It became especially popular when diesel fuel prices climbed to $4 a gallon a year ago, and it's popular now as governments struggle through the worst recession in generations.

The cost of putting a school bus on the street is approximately equal to keeping a teacher on staff, said Linda P. Farbry, director of transportation for Fairfax public schools.

It also doesn't hurt that the campaign -- especially the "Walking School Bus" that encourages parents to coordinate neighborhood routes, wear safety vests and share escort duty -- fits with the baby boomer habit of reviving childhood practices. An oft-quoted study found that in 1969, 41 percent of students walked or bicycled to school. By 2001, that figure had dropped to 13 percent.

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) has his own childhood memories.

"The schools do nothing to teach the benefits of walking and biking to school," McKay said. "Somehow we got away from that, because when I went through the schools, they had presentations by police and others talking about the importance of walking and biking to school."

McKay's suggestion that more kids walk also reflects the growing financial tensions between the School Board, which sets school policies and answers mostly to parents, and the Board of Supervisors, which controls school funding and answers mostly to taxpayers. McKay said that one of the biggest complaints he hears from constituents is about the number of half-full school buses they see.

But there are also plenty of reasons why bucking a 40-year trend of transporting kids to school is not going to be easy. Fairfax, which occupies 400 square miles, was built around the automobile.

Noreen C. McDonald, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who studies children's transportation habits, said that walking has declined as distances to schools have increased, the percentage of working mothers has doubled and attitudes about safety have changed.

"People have some very strong fears about leaving their children unsupervised," McDonald said.

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