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Families deal with new Washington County Schools bus policy

August 25, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- As part of a custody arrangement Colleen Winters has shared with her ex-husband since 2000, her daughter spends two weekdays with her father and three with Winters.

However, a new school bus transportation policy for Washington County Public Schools does not allow her daughter to be picked up and dropped off at both homes during the week. Winters, of Hagerstown, and other parents say the new restrictions are unfair to divorced parents.

Those guidelines, approved in May, restrict students to one morning pickup location and one afternoon drop-off location. Those stops can be different.

School officials have said the new policy will make students safer.

As of Thursday, 515 requests were received asking that students be picked up and dropped off at different locations, said schools spokesman Richard Wright. All but 16 of those were approved. He said some were denied because requests were made for out-of-district transportation. Some requests violated the new policy and some were denied for other reasons, he said.

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On Sunday, Wright said he would not reveal how many requests were denied because of a particular reason "as an effort to protect the anonymity of the students and their parents."

However, those numbers were given to The Herald-Mail by Transportation Supervisor Barbara Scotto earlier this month, and again by Deputy Superintendent Boyd Michael during a public business meeting last week.

In the first week of August, Scotto said 56 requests had been received, and all but nine were approved. At that time, six requests were for students to go to multiple bus stops on different days of the week, Scotto said. Two were for out-of-district transportation and one was for service to an unapproved stop, Scotto has said.

Last week during a public school board meeting, Michael said 425 requests had been received. As of Tuesday, 11 of those had been rejected, he said. Of those, five were requests for out-of-district transportation, he said.

Winters and Samuel Baker, of Hagerstown, are two of the parents whose requests were denied. Both are divorced parents with split custody agreements.

Winters said her daughter attends Clear Spring High School, and because the bus will not take her daughter to and from both her mother's and father's houses, Winters has been driving her daughter to school. In the afternoons, her daughter waits in the school cafeteria and does her homework until her mother can pick her up.

However, that is only a temporary fix since Winters' daughter is on the school's volleyball team.

"She's kind of stepping up and having to make some decisions, too, here," Winters said of her daughter. "It's not a good situation because she's not being supervised at the school."

Baker, who has a 14-year-old son at Smithsburg High School, has said he and his ex-wife pledged to live in the same school district so bus transportation would be an option for their son. Their son lives with his mother for three days during the school week and with his father the other two.

During a public business meeting last week, Board of Education member Ruth Anne Callaham said school board members had heard from parents denied transportation based on joint custody agreements.

She questioned what options were available for those parents whose transportation requests were denied. Michael told her that appeals are reviewed and emergency situations are outlined in the policy.

"I find that response totally unsatisfactory," Callaham told Michael.

Emergency situations are defined in the policy as situations that "may endanger the life and physical well-being of pupils" or when compliance "may make the operation of pupil transportation impossible or unsafe due to an Act of God, strike, rebellion or other unforeseen disturbance."

There is an appeal process for denied requests that Winters and Baker said they are exploring. The process includes several steps, including a decision by Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan and the Board of Education.

Winters and Baker have been denied at some of the early stages in the process but continue to follow the guidelines outlined in the policy.

During that same public meeting last week, board member Bernadette M. Wagner said she supported the new transportation policy. She said the policy reduced the "number of variables" for students, like different stops on different days.

"We have to make policy that is fair and equitable, and sensitive to needs," Wagner said. "That's why we made the policy somewhat flexible."

She said the previous policy, which Wagner described as "more lenient," was partly to blame for a situation last year that led a 5-year-old to be dropped off at the wrong bus stop about two miles from his home.

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