A small group of parents at the new Horizon Elementary School in Cascades is breathing a sigh of relief, at least temporarily, that their children will ride the bus to school instead of walking even a short distance along a stretch of road where they say cars regularly speed at 45, even 60, miles per hour.
The new transportation arrangement is among the last-minute details school officials are trying to resolve in the final days before school begins Aug. 30. The county also must deal with what it describes as an unusual shortage of bus drivers, a problem that has plagued neighboring counties for years.
Loudoun County public schools will open without five drivers and probably will make up the difference by asking office staff members to drive some buses, said Mike Lunsford, director of transportation for the district. Students might experience slight crowding on some buses as well, Lunsford said.
At Horizon Elementary, parents began mobilizing about two weeks ago, when Principal William Ray announced at a PTA meeting that students living in the Hampshire Station Drive and Parkside Circle area fell into the designated walking zone. According to the rules, children walk if they live within eight-tenths of a mile of their school.
For most of the summer, parents in the area had thought their children would ride the school bus, said Michele Zuckerman, PTA president at Horizon. And they were not pleased with the situation.
Convinced that the roads and pathways their children would take to school were unsafe, parents set out to convince the county. Phone calls and letters poured into Lunsford's office.
"The neighborhood united and presented as much information to the school system as possible so they could make a decision," Zuckerman said. "Safety is a priority for everybody, and nobody wanted these kids to be walking along an unsafe route."
About a week later, after talking to dozens of people, Lunsford relented. He agreed that the children living on the north side of Hampshire Station Drive should be bused because they have no sidewalk and that the bus should pick up students in Parkside Circle because the tunnel that runs under Broadmore Drive from Parkside to the school is poorly lit and invisible from street level.
That left children on the north side of Hampshire Station Drive. Until Thursday, they were still walking.
It didn't please Debbie McVey, who lives on Settler's Point Place. She said her 9-year-old daughter would have to walk six-tenths of a mile out of the way to reach the only safe walkway to Horizon, at the end of Pebblebrook Place. That walkway could be reached only by turning on a very busy Hampshire Station Drive first.
A direct pathway to the school from the end of Settler's Point Place was planned but has not been installed.
So McVey helped organize parents in her area to gather evidence about the dangers of Hampshire Station Drive. The road, which connects three major neighborhoods, has been studied multiple times over the last few years. McVey said that cars routinely exceed the 25 mph limit and run stop signs, adding that inexperienced high school drivers use the road to reach Potomac Falls High School.
After listening some more and visiting the neighborhood, Lunsford agreed with the parents again--for now. He said that all students in the neighborhood will be bused during the upcoming school year and that the situation will be evaluated again next year.
"Whenever there's even a question of safety, we relent very quickly," Lunsford said.
Over the next few months, Horizon parents plan to find a site to build a second safe walkway to school and look at ways to calm traffic on Hampshire Station Drive. The road, which still is owned by the developer, needs to be released from bond and taken over by the Virginia Department of Transportation before parents can ask for safety measures.
McVey is satisfied with the compromise. At least for one year, she said, her daughter will have a safe way to get to school. She hopes that the new pathway will be a genuinely safe walkway and not take students on Potomac View Road, an even busier, more dangerous thoroughfare.
Loudoun public schools need bus drivers. Drivers undergo a month of training and make $11.21 an hour. The shifts are 7 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. Applicants should call 703-771-6480.