All of the schoolchildren in the Montgomery Hills neighborhood know "Mrs. Lippy."
Anna (Marie) Lippy, 50, who lives in the neighborhood, has been the police department crossing guard on Second Avenue in Silver Spring for 16 years. She calls the children by name, and often gives them little treats. When a child has a problem Lippy is always there, according to the neighborhood parents.
Shari Dwyer, PTA president at Woodlin Elementary School in Montgomery Hills, said, "My neighbor said she feels safe when her children walk up the street because Mrs. Lippy is there."
But the parents are concerned that the current crossing guard system, in which the 180 guards are employed and trained by the police department, is about to be dismantled. The Woodlin PTA is joining with others from around the county to protest a provision in the proposed county budget that would permanently eliminate 27 crossing guard positions that were in the budget this year but never filled.
The proposal would also allow a contractor to provide employes to fill any new crossing guard vacancies. Currently, the county hires the individual crossing guards and many of them live near points where the guards are needed.
County Executive Charles Gilchrist has estimated that the proposed change would save the county about $112,000 a year. And he has tried to assuage parents' fears by promising that no current crossing guards will lose their jobs because of the change.
County officials say that the issue has been blown out of proportion by worried parents and crossing guards.
"If ever there was a tempest in a teapot, this is it," said Jacqueline Rogers, director of the county's Office of Management and Budget. "We are not making any radical changes. We are not abolishing any" current jobs.
Concerned Montgomery County parents are expected to testify at hearings on the budget next week.
"We're not convinced that this will save the county any" funds, said Vicki Rafel, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, an umbrella group that represents more than 39,000 parents in the county. "We're not convinced that any change will improve the safety for our children."
One of the parents' concerns is that crossing guards employed by a private security firm may not live in the community. "If the crossing guards didn't live in the neighborhood, they may not feel the same sense of responsibility on a cold, wet morning to get out and go to work as someone who lives in the community and knows the children and the families," said Rafel.
Parents are also worried that a private firm may have a higher turnover rate because its salaries will be lower. The county wants to slash salaries for new crossing guards by a third.
"Crossing guards now are very expensive," said Rogers. "They get between $14 to $16 an hour, which is pretty high to have someone standing there watching kids. And they get full fringe benefits."
Under the county's proposal, new crossing guards may still have to be trained by the police department or meet its standards. But parents and current patrols are not assured that the "new guard" will be as dedicated.
"I hate to see them get rid of something so positive," said Lippy, who wrote a letter of protest and distributed it yesterday to the parents in her neighborhood. "I'd like to feel that some day when my grandchildren go to school they will have a crossing guard that will take the time to care."