Facing budget cuts, Pr. George's county risks losing busing to its best programs

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 2:36 PM

Allison McMahon doesn't know how she'll get to school next year.

Now, it's predictable: The 15-year-old climbs aboard a school bus for a 45-minute ride from Beltsville in northern Prince George's County. The trip ends at the red doors of Suitland High School, where she's a sophomore in the visual arts program. "The only school I wanted to go to," she says.

But Allison and thousands of other students like her are caught in a larger debate about whether dwindling resources will squeeze educational opportunities. Forced to slash spending, the county school board has approved a plan to end busing for coveted magnet programs, such as Suitland's, that draw students to schools outside their neighborhoods.

The cuts would save $8 million a year but also set a new course for school transportation for Maryland's second-largest school system. The yellow bus was once seen as a vehicle to promote educational equity and access. Now officials view it as something more prosaic: an expense.

But the social and economic segregation in Prince George's has not ended, and some parents fear that without buses, poor students will be locked out of the best schools.

"We don't want an elitist system, where only kids with means get to attend," said Paul Gentile, a parent at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. "We don't want to be thrown under the bus."

The plan, which won't be final until the county and state governments approve their budgets, jeopardizes bus service for about 7,500 of the county's 9,000-plus magnet students. Many of those students labored over portfolios, endured competitive exams and rehearsed difficult arias to get the chance to attend one of the specialized programs.

"I'm worried that my parents won't have the time every day to drive me there," said Allison, who has three school-age siblings. "And some of my friends' parents leave for work before they even go to school. They'll have no ride."

School board members acknowledge that the plan is controversial. Board member Rosalind A. Johnson (District 1), who has been involved in county education since the 1960s, said cutting bus service would be one of the most significant policy shifts since a mandate for busing was lifted in 1998. Since then, board members have largely avoided the topic of busing.

"Who wanted to wade into that shark pool?" she said. "Now we have to move from the old system to one that's economically sustainable.''

About 50 students and parents gathered in front of Suitland High on Friday, armed with picket signs, chants and woes. Nearly all of Suitland's 358 arts magnet students are bused. Public transportation, they say, could double their commute time to school. And working parents say it would be nearly impossible to find time to pick up their children when school ends at 4:40 p.m.

"By cutting transportation, they are cutting the program," said Christina Graves, the mother of a soprano in the Suitland magnet program. "Some children will not be able to make it to school."

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