Bowing to parental demands, the Montgomery school board has restored busing to about one-third of the junior and senior high school students who were earlier told they would have to walk as an economy measure.
Within a week of the day school opened, officials said they would put back into service 56 of the 163 buses that were cut out in an effort to save $233,788. The restoration would mean that an estimate 2,240 student will be ablt to ride to school - leaving another 4,695 still the walkers.
However, soon after school officials cited 56 buses as the number to be returned to service, the staff began reviewing existing routes with an eye toward extending them - leaving in doubt the precise number of buses to be returned, students to carried or financial savings.
The board's decision last May to extend the walking distance from 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 miles was mad hastily and under pressure to find money for employee pay raises - leaving the staff without time to review all of the routes involved. The circumstances left the board with few defenses when protesting parents showed up with maps, snapshots of cars barreling down on roads without sidewalks, and harrowing stories of cars skidding onto the shoulders and knocking children off their bikes.
Dealing with the bus dispute - and the angry parents involved - left some members of the board with sharply differing views of their original action. During a recess in a seven-hour hearing attended by more than 400 parents, many of whom booed, shouted and clapped to show the board how they felt, board member Blair Ewing said calmly of the bus cutback: "We made a mistake."
On the day before, board member Marian Greenblatt had said: "I have no qualms about the decision we made. It was a necessary action to take . . . a purely financial decision. The cutoff might go to two miles next year."
The board's action in reversing some of the no-busing decisions and not others added to the controversy leaving communities that were unsuccessful in their appeals complaining about a lack of equity.
"How can you call it equitable when the board restores buses to children who walk along a 10-foot shoulder on Bell Mills Road," said Nancy McGowan, a Potomac resident who has a child attending Hoover Junior High School, "but doesn't restore buses to children who walk along a 5-foot shoulder on Seven Locks Road."
Safety was the theme of most complaints heard by the board.
"Our students are walking through an asphalt jungle, dodging trucks and cars . . ." said Estelle Lee, mother of a child who must walk past the heavily-trafficked intersection of Lockwood Drive and New Hampshire on hew way to Key Junior High School. "If any child is injured at this intersection," Lee told the board members at the hearing, "we will hold you directly responsible."
School board member Verna Fletcher was sympathetic to the complaints but unconvinced about some. "Sometimes it sounded like the parents were talking about elementary scholl children," she remarked later. "Now junior hihg is different. That I'm sensitive to. But with senior high kids, we're talking about kids who do a lot of things on their own, who go places by themselves."
The school bus cuts - along with others - were made last spring after the county council refused to fund the contracted 6 per cent increase in teacher's salaries. Instead, the council agreed to give the board enough money to fund a 4.2 per cent raise, the same the county employees received. Within eight days the board had to come up with $3.6 million in budget cuts to meets its contract obligations to the teachers. By i creasing the walking distance and cutting out 163 buses, the board was able to project a saving of $233,788 in bus driver salaries and operational expenses.
The restoration of buses, even of an uncertain number, would cost the school board money and no one was prepared to say where the funds would come from. "We'll probably have to ask the county council to approve a transfer of funds within the school budget," mused board member Fletcher, "and if they don't do that, we're in very bad trouble."
Discussing the history of the cuts, Leon Stafford, the director of school services, said, "I had to submit where I thought the cuts could be made - security, management everything. In my impact statement, I said the board should be prepared to receive opposition from the community. We didn't know exactly how much money would be saved, because we knew we would probably have to run some of the buses that had been cut."
Stafford and George Baker, the director of transportation for the county schools, are the ones, who have accused them of not knowing the walking routes, and of calling hazardous routes not hazardous.
In fact, the school staff acknowledged that they did not know what the routes looked like in May when the decision to cut buses was made. The socalled hazardous routes have been checked during the past few weeks.
"We couldn't go out and check the routes, before the board actually chose to cut bus service," said Stafford . "That would have been ludicrous. We didn't know exactly how far the bus service would be cut. We didn't know exactly what routes would be cut."
Fletcher agreed. "They're right. They didn't have the time before the decision was made," she said. "But what they did from May 23rd to the present, I don't know."
Fletcher admitted there were some problems with the staff appraisal of the hazards of the situation. "They didn't go out and measure every distance on the routes. Some they guessed. And some of the distances were not properly measured."
But she concedes they could not have saved the board from all their conflicts. "When you look, it depends on how you look. Out transportation people compare hazards to other places in the county. And when we decide to restore buses, they just shake their heads and say, my God, you might as well restore everything. We depend on parents an awful lot to tell us of the problems. That's why we did so much listening."
The listening is not over for the school board. Parents continue to call, and the school board continues to either restore buses or promise safe-guards in the forms of crosswalk markings and crossing guards, another possible money problem.
"The coucil has made it very clear to us," Fletcher commented. "If it costs more money for crossing guards and crosswalk markings, they're not about to help us."
In the past three weeks, the county has restored busing to various communities around 15 different junior and senior high schools. Some of the busing is "temporary," that is, it is being reinstated while walking routes are being reinstated while walking routes are being renovated with more safe-guards, which will eventually make them safe for walking. All of the buses granted are subject to revision as some already existing buses are rerouted for additional children in the next two weeks.
Four temporary buses have been restored to the area north of the Capital Beltway using North Bethesda Junior High, one temporary bus and one permanent bus to children attemding Montgomery Blair High School, seven permanent buses to Walt Whitman High School, and two permanent buses to Kennedy High School.
Four permanent buses were restored to the Potomac Woods-Falls Orchard communities using the Wootton High School and three permanent buses were restored to the Frost Junior High School. Peary High received one permanent bus, and Newport Junior High received three permanent buses; Einstein High School received five permanent, and Tilden Junior High received three temporary buses.
One bus was restored to the White Oak Junior High School, and one to the Springbrook High School. Rockville High School received four temporary buses, and Pyle Junior High received five permanent buses. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School received one bus, and children from the Foxhills West and copenhaver communities that attend Wooten High School and Frost Junior High School received a total of nine buses as of a week ago.