Tires squealed and car radios blared as Groveton High School students pulled out of a parking lot and roared down heavily traveled Quander Road.
Edging along the side of the shoulderless road came seven small children, aged 4 and 5 years, all headed for a day care center inside the huge high school.
Their yellow school bus, which had just deposited them at the intersection of Quander and Emmett roads, also rolled past them ad the circle in front of Groveton's main entrance where the high school buses stop.
To parents of the kindergarten students, the solution to this problem was obvious: Move the bus stop. They went to Gerald Fill, one of the newest members of the Fairfax School Board, and he agreed to what he thought was a simple request.
Nothing Fill had done in his six years in the federal bureaucracy was to prepare him for what followed -- an affair that could be called the battle of the bus stop.
By the time the matter was resolved earlier this week, Fill was thoroughly frustrated, a half dozen kindergarten parents were enraged and officials of the Fairfax school bureaucracy were convinced that their careful, deliberate style of action was fully justified.
To Fill, a 41-year-old senior analyst in the Office of Management and Budget, it was an emotionally draining experience and one he calls "an eye-opener" as to why parents -- and students -- often become disillusioned with the Fairfax school system, the largest in the area.
It's absurd," Fill fumed as he paced around Groveton High School, waiting for the arrival of the controversial bus. "If there weren't children involved it would be really funny."
Fairfax school officials were equally adamant in their opposition to the change, citing a long-standing policy that prohibits them from transporting children to anywhere other than between their assigned schools and their homes. It mattered not to the school officials that all the children involved were going from an elementary school to a school-run day care-center along the bus's route; what mattered was the policy.
Dropping the youngsters off at the corner was acceptable to the school authorities, because that was the equivalent of leaving them at a residential corner. Taking them onto the school grounds wasn't; that called for breaking the rules, the administrators said at first.
Before Fill was able to convince the Fairfax school administration -- the people who take their orders from the school board -- that his request was proper, he had to violate what he thought the role of a board member should be, convince the bureaucrats that moving the stop would not set a new "countywide" policy and finally argue at a public meeting with tears in his eyes that "these are human beings we are talking about, not bus stops."
To Fill, accustomed to dealing with bureaucrats, the troubles he encounted with the school bureaucracy were a surprise. "It's unbelievable that rules are being so rigidly applied," he said at one point in the controversy.
Indeed, the parents who came to Fill shortly before school opened this year were startled to learn that their request would provoke any dispute at all. But others with school board experience say it's typical of the problems that confront them.
"Your first reaction is to ask what's all the fuss about?" said Anthony T. Lane, who with 16 years is the senior member of the Fairfax School Board. "You want to say 'just change the darn bus stop.'"
But as Fill and many American school board members quickly learn, saying something is wrong is not enough, as the school bus case seems to illustrate. School board members are serving shorter and shorter terms, according to the National Association of School Boards and frustration with the job is one of the primary reason.
The bus stop case illustrates dramatically those tensions.
Fill had been on the Fairfax school board on barely eight weeks when the parents arrived with their request. It was one he'd agreed to undertake despite his earlier pledge to avoid becoming a "caseworker" tending to individual school complaints instead of worrying about overall educational policy. That was the role he had defined for himself when he agreed to the school job, which pays $5,000 a year.
The parents' request was precise and Fill believed clearly justified even though the parents told him it had been rejected out of hand by the school bureaucracy. The parents wanted the school bus that was to transport their seven 4-and-5-year-old children to a country-run day care center to stop inside the Grovaton High School grounds where the center was located, instead of at a nearby intersection.
That stop had forced the students to walk along the heavily traveled Quander Road, causing a safety hazard that Fill and the parents thought the county would have to eliminate. But the county's main worry, Fill said, was a fear that moving the stop might set a precedent for other day care centers in the county.
"We have a policy that we do not provide transportation to private day care facilities," said Fairfax School Superintendent Linton Deck in explaining the reluctance of the administrators to budge. "We just can't get in that business."
That shouldn't have been the issue, say parents of the children involved. The school system runs the day care center their children are attending. But it took a week of study for the school authorities to realize that.
"I never thought there would be any problems," said Drue Murray, the mother of one of the youngsters. "The bus already goes right by Groveton -- twice in fact" on each run.
When the county officials finally agreed to the change this week, the decision came only after Fill's repeated pleas at a school board meeting and numerous conferences that personally involved him and Deck, the $59,000-a-year head of the 127,000-student system.
Fill said yesterday he doesn't know what prompted the county to change its position. "I guess it is just like the (federal) government," he said."You have to learn to roll with the punches and just keep coming back for more in order to be able to rip through the system."
But he is puzzled why a decision like this one had to be referred to all the way up to the superintendent's office. "It's a failure on our part to decentralize decision making," he said. "The school system has got to delegate authority to the principals and teachers who are actually in touch with the children."
Deck for his part said he was glad that the school administrators took time to study the issue fully and thus avoided setting a precedent that would force school buses to take children to day care centers across the county.
The county was merely striving to equity toward all students, he said. "I was pleased we could work it out and pleased we did it without setting a bad precedent."
But others say the problem is that school board members have to get emeshed in such problems in the first place. "You have to get to the point where you accept the fact that you're just one board member . . ." says Fairfax's Lane.
Few school board members apparently are that philosophical. "The typical school board term is three years," said Jerry Floyd, an associate director of the National School Board Association. "Most memberrs serve one term, run for reelection, then quit in the middle of their second term."
In 1970 the typical board member served seven years, he said "Now the average tenure has dropped to four years."