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Buses aren't taxis, but still, this policy is a bit severe

September 07, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

When the Washington County Board of Education announced its new transportation policy for this school year, images of sledgehammers and gnats came to mind.

True, the 25-year-old policy was probably in need of some fine tuning, but the rigid result certainly smacks of overkill.

The board's hard-line response to inconvenienced parents, which basically amounted to "deal with it," is probably a residual from the tremendous about of heat laid on the board last year, when a 5-year-old was dropped off far from his home.

If parents were so outraged by this event, then here's the remedy, like it or not, the board seems to say.

But dubious law and dubious policy often results when an isolated event is treated like an epidemic. As unfortunate and as inexcusable as last year's mix-up may have been, something like it is bound to happen every now and again where the transport of 20,000 students a day is involved.

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In some perverse way, it's even a credit to the board's transportation department that this incident received the publicity that it did - were it a routine occurrence, it wouldn't have been news.

The board is also correct in its implication that it's running a bus system, not a taxi service. It's probably safe to say there were abuses of the system - kids with multiple pick-up and drop-off spots that almost begged for confusion and mistakes.

But now the board has laid down the Rule of 1: The student must be picked up at one stop in the mornings and dropped off at one stop in the afternoon.

Critics say that while this may have worked in the days of "Leave it to Beaver," today's fractured families, irregular job shifts and multi-tiered care structures are hardly conducive to single stops.

Washington County Commissioner Jim Kercheval says the policy creates an easy solution for the staff at the expense of the parents.

Of course simplifying things at the staff level is not, in and of itself, entirely bad. Simplification, simply put, makes it easier for the staff to keeps tabs on the students who trust their safety to the board.

A hard-and-fast rule is, certainly, easier to administer. Once you start making exceptions to the rules, where do you stop? And do some more well-heeled and politically savvy parents get a break while struggling, single moms have the bus door shut in their faces? A strict rule should, in theory, eliminate charges of favoritism. It should also help insulate the transportation department from being swamped by the "appeals process."

But Kercheval is correct in thinking that the board should recognize certain hardship cases. Plenty of parents out there are not out to abuse the system; they're just trying to get by. The last thing they need is one more piece of bureaucratic office furniture thrown into their already rocky paths.

Further, Commissioner Kristin Aleshire raised a valid point when he mentioned the increase in vehicular traffic that this policy all but guarantees.

Some of the nation's best minds today are engaged in planning how to get more cars off of the road. This is both an economic issue and an environmental issue that is deserving of the board's consideration.

Plus, buses are usually on time; parents frequently aren't. The savings in transportation paperwork may be negated by a mountain of tardy slips.

There's even a matter of child psyche involved. In situations of joint custody, potentially warring parents will be forced to handle the transportation chores, initiating contacts that might not go well.

The thought of ma fishtailing out of the driveway and spraying gravel all over pa isn't a lasting image you want a child to have.

Board member Wayne Ridenour says that "You'll never have a policy that will make everybody happy," and he's right about that. But when a policy makes so many people unhappy, it serves as evidence that the line around what is allowed has been drawn too tightly.

One student-one stop is the ideal - and certainly that should be the starting point. But relaxing the rule here and there, through carefully considered and clearly defined exceptions or expansions is both a matter of sense and a matter of respecting parents who find themselves in difficult circumstances.

No, it's not an easy task and yes, not everyone will be happy. But it's an important enough issue to at least make the effort.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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