Upset that Prince George's County public schools have decided to end 14 years of door-to-door busing for magnet school students, at least 200 parents are hprotesting plans for central bus stops, saying it is inconvenient and potentially dangerous.
Within hours of receiving letters Wednesday from the school system announcing that magnet students would have to be dropped at local schools for pickup this fall, frantic parents started telephone trees and letter-writing and e-mail campaigns. Their goal: Pressure the school board to make reductions elsewhere to help pay for teacher raises.
The new magnet school busing plan, approved June 17 by the school board as part of a package of cuts to help pay for a boost in teacher pay and other incentives, calls for the county's 12,000 magnet students to be bused from "cluster stops" at county schools. Similar centralized pickups have been in use for years in Montgomery County, a plan Prince George's is seeking to replicate. The change is expected to save $2 million annually in Prince George's.
Parents of Prince George's magnet students said they will be forced to scramble to make arrangements when new bus schedules are released Aug. 15. They complained that the change was made too late in the year to allow them time to get their children enrolled in private school or move to another school district.
The change in Prince George's will not affect the more than 11,000 students bused door-to-door to Prince George's schools as part of a recently overturned court-ordered busing program. Those students will continue to be picked up at home, officials said.
But that is little comfort to magnet school parents, who say they have stuck with the public school system in part because of its accessible magnet programs. Many reacted like P.J. Siegel, a working single parent whose daughter attends Thomas G. Pullen School, a magnet for elementary and middle school students in Landover. She fears that she will have to leave her daughter at the bus stop 30 minutes before the bus arrives so she can make it to work on time.
"I do not even let my child walk four blocks to the grocery store because of the safety issue," said Siegel, who has protested in letters to the school board and the governor's office. "I can't go to work and leave my child at a bus stop far from home. Even if I drop her off at 7:45 a.m. for the 8:10 bus, she can get in a heck of a lot of trouble."
School board members acted after their request for $52 million more for the school system's $876 million budget was rebuffed by County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who said he wasn't sure the money would be well managed.
"Everybody talks all the time about mismanagement and fat in the system that needs to be cut," board member James E. Henderson (Seabrook) said, "but this proves there's no such thing as fat because we're cutting programs that are near and dear to the people."
While the budget is about $31 million more than the last school year's, virtually all of the increase is paying for teacher raises.
By yesterday afternoon, more than 200 people had called the county schools' transportation department. About 30 people called the Board of Education office to request time to speak at the July 1 meeting. Several schools also received many calls.
Donna Beck, a parent and activist, said magnet parents should have spoken up sooner. "The school system was very forthcoming that this was on the line," she said. "I can only say that the magnet parents should have realized where their money fell" and lobbied against the busing change.
Lolita Ferguson, whose two sons attend Fort Washington Forest Elementary's magnet program, said she put her sons in the magnet school because she was displeased with their neighborhood school's crowding. She questioned the fairness of changing the busing system for magnet students.
"It sounds to me like they are trying to force us into the neighborhood schools," she said. "My kids have been in it for two years, and they are starting to settle in and make friends, and now I have to change schools. I don't like switching my kids like that. But if it came down to it, I'd have to because I have no way to transport them back and forth."
Judy Mickens-Murray, founder of Parent Action Committee for Education, said the change may be the first indication that magnet schools may eventually be eliminated.
"I think a lot of magnet parents are disheartened because they feel they are getting the short end of the stick, but the reality is that with the end of court-ordered busing, all children will eventually be going to their neighborhood schools."
CAPTION: Lolita Ferguson, with son Artis, 8, has two sons who will be affected by plans to centralize busing to magnet schools in Prince George's County.
CAPTION: Lolita Ferguson, with Artis, 8, and Christian, 11, says she might have to take the boys out of Fort Washington Forest Elementary's magnet program.