Hundreds of Arlington County parents are protesting changes to a school transportation policy likely to force more than 1,000 children who previously would have taken the bus to instead walk to school.
The uproar began in August and is continuing as the 22,700-student system prepares for the first day of class, on Tuesday. In many school systems, bus service has come under scrutiny in recent years as officials seek to preserve as much money as possible for classroom instruction.
School officials say the new policy is designed to make bus service more efficient.
First, the school system plans to strictly enforce the walking zone for elementary students (for those who live within one mile of their school) and secondary students (for those within 11 / 2 miles). Previously, officials acknowledge, there was not much enforcement. About 14,000 students have been deemed eligible to ride the bus and been given bus cards. Officials estimate that as many 1,500 walking-zone students who used to ride the bus will no longer be able to do so.
Second, the system is reducing the number of bus stops that serve five schools: Taylor, Glebe and Campbell elementary schools and Yorktown and Wakefield high schools. Officials said that 12 bus stops out of about 1,800 were dropped. That reduction will affect 250 students.
The school system rolled out the policy in a series of letters over the summer. But when specific changes were announced in an Aug. 13 letter, parents erupted.
“I never, ever throughout this whole process had an inkling that they meant they were going to remove busing from people who previously had busing,” said Jennifer Mulchandani, 39, whose sons Oliver, 7, and Ben, 9, attend Taylor Elementary. Although she lives about nine-tenths of a mile from the school, her children rode the bus last year.
“This is a major shift in services in the county for people who pay a tremendous amount in taxes.”
Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy acknowledged that the transition has not gone smoothly.
“We’ve gotten some criticism, and I regret that and how this has affected some families,” Murphy said. But he added that the changes will go forward.
School officials say that about 9,000 students countywide live within walking zones.
In previous years, they say, many students who live within those zones “walked back” — away from school — toward bus stops. Under the new policy, students who had been doing that will no longer be able to ride the bus every day. Between 1,000 and 1,500 students will be affected by that change.
“There were some buses that were just greatly overcrowded, and that’s just not safe,” said schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos. She also said that “no students will be left behind” at bus stops, despite the new enforcement rules.
Students must show their bus card, also known as a voucher , to the driver as they board. Students who do not have vouchers with them will still be allowed on, officials said, but the driver will be responsible for alerting the school system about the extra rider. School officials will then talk to the student’s family to determine whether the rider lost the voucher or was ineligible to receive one.
In an Aug. 3 transportation announcement, officials promoted “a healthier option” to bus riding and suggested that students walk or ride bikes to “help our environment by reducing the number of cars transporting students to and from school.”
Some families are sharply critical of the walking-zone policy.
In previous years, “it was never enforced, and it wasn’t an issue,” said Donna Owens, 43, the mother of an 11-year-old who will be a sixth-grader at Williamsburg Middle. Now, she said, many children may have to cross busy intersections to get to school.
For years, Owens said, parents had received a letter from the transportation department describing the locations of bus stops in their neighborhoods. Regardless of the distance they lived from nearby schools, the students were allowed to ride the bus.
School officials said the revisions are designed to address growing enrollment.
“Our transportation system was reaching a crisis stage,” Murphy said, who is expecting enrollment to grow by 1,000 from last year.
The school system spends about $14.4 million a year for transportation, operating 129 buses daily. Officials said it would cost about $190,000 to buy and run an additional bus per year. No new buses were purchased this year. The total operating budget for the school system is about $500 million.
Last week, officials said eliminating 12 bus stops would cut service for 120 students. This week, they revised that estimate to 250 students.
About 200 appeals have been filed by parents seeking bus service for their children, Erdos said, but only a handful have been successful.
Murphy said the county is helping to organize walking groups to help children get safely to school.
“This is a fluid process, it’s dynamic and changing,” Murphy said. But he added that there are no plans to purchase more buses or delay rolling out the changes.
“We have this plan in place, and we need to move forward,” he said.