In the four weeks since the opening of public schools in Montgomery County, bus service has been restored to 2,166 students who had been scheduled to walk to school.
A total of 6,935 students had been listed to become walkers when the school board decided last spring to increase the walking distance from 1.5 to 1.75 miles. When school openend, however, the cutback drew strenuous objcetions from many parents.
The cost of restoring the buses will hbe approximately $71,000 or $33 per student bused, according to school superintendent Charles M. Bernardo. That figure is slightly less than one-third of the $233,788 that the board planned to save for use toward funding a cost-of-living increase for county school employees.
Bernardo said the school staff will study school spending to find a source of funds for the extra buses.
"The availability of funds within Category 6, Pupil Transportation, will be analyzed to determine the extent to which funds from other categories may be needed," Bernardo said in a memo to the board members.
Buses were restored in various areas when parents complained that their children would face hazards of walking along busy streets on narrow sidewalks or pathways, sometimes through unsafe neighborhoods, sometimes crossing busy intersections without traffic signals.
As parents continue to complain of unsafe areas and walking conditions within the 1.75 mile cut-off, members of the school staff are investigating the possible restoration of more buses or the rerouting of existing buses that are not completely full.
"The number of buses will fluctuate as we rearrange routes," said George Baker, school transportation director.Baker and his staff of five field supervisors continue to get enough calls from parents to spend six hours a day checking area hazards.
"If one person complains, we send a person out to check that area," Baker said.
Baker said that his staff sometimes checks identical areas several times, because each complaining parent wants to accompany the staff person as the area is checked. "It's really tough to say to these people, I've already looked at your area," Baker explained. They want to see the feet click off on that wheel themselves."
Baker's staff uses an engineer's wheel which he says records distance traveled by the person carrying it. Some parents argue that they live more than 1.75 miles from school.
"Sometimes, people will measure a distance in the car which is longer than the suggested way for the child to walk," Baker explained. "They they start talking about trees and woods and lurkers and heavy books and musical instruments. So either way, you can't win."
Baker and his staff will restore at least temporary bus service for reasons other than the 1.75 mile limit.
"Children walking extended distances with tremendous numbers of shopping establishments and heavy traffic, a walk cycle on a traffic light so short that kids couldn't get all the way across the street, or an unserviceable walkway are things we look for," Baker said. Sidewalks do not count. "Outside of the city of Rockville, there are lots of places without sidewalks," he explained.