School Board members representing the eastern districts of the county said they want more discussion and study before reinstating parents’ option to appeal any transportation concerns to the board.
The board voted 6-3 tonight to move the debate over a policy change that would allow for families to appeal complaints about bus stops and routes to the board to the Student Support and Services Committee. The previous policy, which the board unanimously amended in March, gave families that option if their concerns were not resolved by Transportation Department staff.
In the first three weeks of the school year, parents have flooded some board members’ inboxes and Facebook pages protesting major changes to school transportation. The school system has consolidated bus stops in an effort to shorten students’ rides, fill buses with more students, and reduce the number of drivers needed. But in some cases, the changes have resulted in overfilled buses, crowded stops, and more students walking further along roads without sidewalks to get to stops.
Last week, transportation leaders reported they had received 1,385 grievances about bus service, and that they had responded and “closed out” 739 of them.
School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) brought the transportation policy back to the board at tonight’s meeting, in hopes that his colleagues would support reversing their previous decision and allow for families concerns to reach the board when all other options have been exhausted.
“I realize we’re still working to stream line transportation services… but it’s resulted in parents and children left with few options, and in many cases putting them in danger,” DeKenipp said. “Why wait for an accident to occur or for a child to get injured or worse?”
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) agreed. When it was clear that the majority of board members were opposed to changing the policy, she said, “You all obviously are not getting the emails we’re getting. These are rural roads—you can’t just bring a flashlight out there to make it safe. … I know it was our choice to live there, but gosh darn it, we pay taxes like everybody else.”
DeKenipp later added, “The committee process takes a month, and the truth is we have kids at risk every day.”
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) and Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) agreed with moving the policy discussion to committee. They said that it’s important that the policy is written in such a way that the board can follow it.
Morse said if the more than 1,000 families that complained in the past three weeks went straight to the board, it would be unmanageable. “I don’t know if this is necessarily the wrong answer but I would like it evaluated,” he said.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian), who chairs the Student Support and Services Committee that has been researching ways to improve bus service, acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns. But she said she wants to give staff a chance to address each concern.
“Is there an issue? Yeah. Do we need to get together and solve the problem? Yes. I just don’t think we need a policy change to do it,” she said. Rose noted that the Transportation Department has made hundreds of changes since the start of the school year. “So the policy doesn’t need to be changed in order to effect changes in bus routes or stops. They are working on them now.”
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) voted with DeKenipp and Turgeon against sending the item to committee, but said he will ultimately vote against a policy change. He said he does not believe that board members have the expertise to determine what makes a safe bus route.
Five parents brought their complaints in person to the board during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Ben Cates asked the board to reconsider placing high school and middle school students together on long bus rides. He said his children are picked up after school at Blue Ridge Middle School, then travel to Loudoun Valley High School where they wait for students there to board before heading to their neighborhood. “Their bus ride is 55 minutes and frequently over an hour,” he said.
Brenna MacMillan said kids in her Purcellville neighborhood are now asked to walk along Telegraph Springs Road to wait for a bus in the early morning hours. The road is narrow, unlit, and has no sidewalks or shoulder. “Our middle school students are being forced to cross this road to get home each day, and elementary students are being asked to stand in the dark each morning,” she said. “We are outraged that LCPS chose efficiency over the safety of 30 students.”
Morse, Hornberger and Rose thanked Transportation Department staff for their work to implement a new system, with the goal of shortening students’ bus rides and being more responsible with taxpayer dollars.
“I think you did a tremendous job,” Morse said. “I’m just going to leave it at that because you’ve done a good job.”