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

By Robert Samuels
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."

In 1972, a court mandated busing for students to blend the county's black and white enclaves, a decision that flowed from the Supreme Court's edict in Brown v. Board of Education.

During the mid-'80s, the county promoted voluntary integration through magnet schools, which enabled parents to dispatch their kids to programs based on their interests, not their Zip codes.

Those programs helped fulfill the legal mandate and boost lower-performing schools, said Alvin Thornton, a former school board member and an expert on educational equity issues.

Even after the desegregation order was lifted in 1998, widespread bus service continued for magnet and regular students. By then, racial integration had faded as an issue because the county had become predominantly black. But Thornton said busing helped alleviate economic disparities.

"The economic divide is dangerous and could present the same sort of challenges as the racial divide did," said Thornton, now provost at Howard University. He added that an end to magnet busing might help cement "enclaves between the advantaged and disadvantaged and set barriers to achievement.''

Fairfax and Montgomery counties provide busing for certain magnet programs, officials said, and do not plan to curtail it.

But Prince George's faces more-severe fiscal problems. The county's budget would eliminate more than 1,300 school jobs, including 600 teachers, according to estimates. Also endangered are 92 school librarians, the popular ecological site Camp Schmidt and middle-school sports.

About 90,000 of the county's 127,000 students ride buses. In the $1.6 billion budget, one of every $20 funds transportation. The school board's chair, Verjeana M. Jacobs, said that made bus service a logical place to cut. "We need to give more parents options closer to their communities instead of just being used to busing our students everywhere," Jacobs said.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. floated a compromise: Have parents pay for busing on a sliding scale, tied to income. Details about such a plan, though, have been hazy.

How "ability to pay" would be determined remains unclear, which worries some parents. Board members say many could afford the expense. But statistics show that at least a third of students in the programs can't pay the full cost of school lunch.

On a recent Saturday, a group of Suitland magnet parents met for coffee and hors d'oeuvres and decided to stage the rally.

Chanting "Buses matter," parents and students stomped on sidewalks early Friday along Silver Hill Road. Behind them, the school's digital billboard read: "Don't cut our creativity, don't cut our integrity, don't cut our future.''

"These programs have a proven track record of working as they are," said Lewis McIlwain, 48, a parent. He showed up at 6 a.m. without his daughter.

More than an hour later, Naomi McIlwain, 15, crossed the street to reach the school. She and a few friends had taken public transportation to school for the first time - two train rides and two bus connections. She lives 10 miles away. The trip took 80 minutes.

Her father hugged her.

She said: "I never want to do that again.''

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