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April 3, 2009

At What Price?

Joe Charlebois

Recently the Frederick County Board of Education, without public comment, rescinded their three-year-old policy regarding what distance constitutes whether a student will receive busing services or will walk from home to their public school. This rule applies not only to high school students, but middle school, elementary school and kindergarten students as well.


In 2007, the members of the board obviously saw a need to shorten the walking distance to schools. Why did they change it? Because they had the funds and it was a good idea? What made it a good idea – our children’s safety perhaps?


Now, with an additional 10,000 new residents in the City of Frederick alone over the past decade, the move to shorten the distance between home and school looked like a wise one. The increase in traffic in areas that saw sporadic levels of traffic in years past now see those same roads displaying what is more typical of big city rush-hour traffic. The foresight shown by then board members was commendable. The short-sightedness of the current board in reversing their previous decision is unforgivable.


The board looks to save a stated $965,069 according to board documents. But at what cost is the safety of our children?


Recently, Frederick resident Shaun Martin, founder of FCPS Transportation Reform, has twice spoken before the board in opposition to the change. He first spoke at the February 25 meeting asking why such a dramatic change to policy was voted on without comment.


Other than the lack of public comment, he made three valid points. He noted that there are other serious considerations with adding a large number of school-aged children to the walkways of Frederick. First, many of the students crisscross neighborhoods that are notorious enclaves of drug activity. Secondly, there are 99 registered sex offenders living within Frederick County. And thirdly, there‘s an ever increasing number of vehicles that traverse the roads the children follow or cross.


As upset as Mr. Martin is about the change that will directly impact his children, he is even more upset by what he perceives as the growing fog blocking transparency in government. Mr. Martin was made aware of the ruling change only after a vote was taken to approve alterations to the current policy.


As Mr. Martin notes, the vote was made without any input from the public. What other policy changes this significant have the board ruled on without the public’s input? This affects the children and families of those children in ways the board has yet to realize (or care about).


What will these changes affect?


Safety, first and foremost will be affected. The board has put little thought into this aspect of such a sweeping change.


One board member in particular, Dr. Michael Schaden, has joked that the additional distance will be good for the students affected. He stated: “Frankly, I don’t think that the extra exercise would hurt any of them.”


Dr. Schaden, if that extra exercise is running a modified version of the steeplechase – crossing potentially dangerous roads, navigating treacherous sidewalks, avoiding vehicles that don’t abide by the 25 M.P.H. speed limit and avoiding predators – then, yes, I think that the added distance may just hurt them.


Secondly, those with lesser means will be affected the greatest. Undo pressures added to the less fortunate who rely on public transportation or strict work schedules may now be required to walk their children to school to assure their safety. How will this change their situation? Will there place of work allow for working shorter hours?


Thirdly, the economics of this cannot be ignored. Economically our Board of Education is essentially passing on an uncontested “tax hike” to the parent or guardian who may now feel obligated to drive their child to school, or supervise their walk to school property. Either way, there is a cost in either the use of a vehicle and/or lost time in making sure that their child arrives safely at school.


I understand the need to go over the budget with a fine-tooth comb, and look for any potential savings, but the lack of debate and indifference to what the children will face on their daily trek to school each day is unconscionable!


Mr. Martin has attempted to communicate these sentiments over his two speeches before the committee. In his first presentation he challenged the board members to take a walk in his children’s shoes (March 6th) to see the challenges that they will face first hand in order to be able to make a reasoned decision.


One board member, Donna Crook, met Mr. Martin’s challenge and made the walk with the Martins and other affected families. Ms. Crook, it should be noted, is a supporter of keeping the walking distances at their current distance. Failing to accept Mr. Martin’s invitation were board members Daryl Boffman, Bonnie Borsa, Angie Fish, Kathryn Groth, Michael Schaden, Board President Jean Smith, and Superintendent of Schools Linda Burgee.


Several board members have corresponded with Mr. Martin, all stating their concern regarding the safety of the children, but no one but Ms Crook has walked in their shoes. Ms. Groth has recently corresponded with Mr. Martin in response to possibly attending Mr. Martin’s next “Walk to School” day.


Board members, who have stated their concern, can truly show it by leaving the walking distances where they are.


(Editor’s Note: Mr. Martin has created a website called to address these issues.)


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