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School transportation policy -- One size does not fit all

August 26, 2008|By JUSTIN HARTINGS

Earlier this year, the Washington County Board of Education approved the first update to its transportation policy in more than 25 years. These changes are being implemented with the start of the school year. I believe that the new policy is too restrictive and needs further revision.

The previous policy allowed a student to ride different buses to and from different locations on different days of the week. With a simple note from a parent, a student could be dropped off at a new stop or ride a different bus altogether.

Tracking daily transportation changes among 20,000 students is more than the transportation department, school staff or bus drivers should be asked to do. With literally millions of individual pick-ups and drop-offs each year, it is easy to imagine how a miscommunication, a lost note or even poor parental handwriting could jeopardize the safety of a student. The board was right to try to simplify this logistical puzzle.

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But the new policy swings the balance too far in the other direction. Under the revised policy, students are restricted to one morning pick-up location and one afternoon drop-off location for the school year.

I continue to believe (as I said during the debate) that this policy would be more appropriate for a 1940s family. In that era, there were few single parents, the divorce rate was low and women were a rarity in the workplace. Today's families are too diverse for such a restrictive policy.

In the modern economy, with frequent job changes, changing work hours, and two-income households, daily scheduling is a challenge for many families. Employers are increasingly accommodating this diversity through flex time, four-day work weeks and time off as compensation for overtime. Now is not the time to take a one-size-fits-all approach to school transportation.

The Aug. 7 Herald-Mail ("Nine requests denied under new bus transportation policy") provided a glimpse into the real impact of this one-size-fits-all approach.

That article described a high school student whose divorced parents share joint custody. The parents both live in their child's school district. A request for the student to be picked up and dropped off at his mother's house three days a week and his father's house two days a week was denied.

A policy that does not support these parents is not a good policy. Perhaps they can be accommodated through an appeal process. I certainly hope that they can. But requiring this family to appeal to the superintendent or the board does not reflect the kind of customer service that we should expect in our schools.

One size does not fit all in education. With the great diversity in our community, one size does not fit all in student transportation either. Should a senior in high school be subject to the same transportation restrictions as a kindergartener? Can we not accommodate a nurse whose shift schedule allows her to be home after school three days a week, but requires day care the other two? Or the two-parent working family that has arranged for a relative to care for their children three days each week because they cannot afford a full complement of day care?

I agree with the board that the transportation department should not function as a personal taxi service. But I also believe that we can provide some flexibility for these families while still ensuring the safety that we all seek for our students.

As the board opens new schools, develops innovative programs and introduces new educational options, now is the time to develop creative transportation solutions that expand access for our students.

I look forward to the opportunity to craft those solutions if the voters elect me to the board in November. We cannot build a school system responsive to the needs of the modern family with a transportation policy designed for a bygone era.

Justin Hartings is a candidate for Washington County Board of Education. He resides in Keedysville.

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