Md. School Board Eyes Nixing Bus Services for Some

The Montgomery County, Md., school board is considering doing away with bus services for students who live a certain distance from school in a bid to save fuel costs. Sharon Cox, a school board member, discusses the board's options.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

If you feel the sting when you fill up at the gas pump, imagine if you had to fill an entire fleet of school buses. The rising price of fuel has school districts around the country scrambling to cut transportation costs. Some districts are scrapping school-bus field trips, using mapping software to squeeze every drop out of the fuel tank or asking drivers to cut back on engine idling.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., the school board this week decided that it might do away with bus service for students living a certain distance from school. More students would have to get to school on their own, by foot, by bike or by catching a ride with their parents.

Sharon Cox is a Montgomery County school board member, and she's chair of the policy committee. She joins me now. Ms. Cox, why has it come to this?

Ms. SHARON COX (School Board Member, Montgomery County): Well, it's come to this, Michele, because last year, we bought three million gallons of gas and spent nearly $8 million on it. And that was when the cost was $2.75 for diesel fuel. Now the cost is at $4.40 a gallon, and we're anticipating a $6 million increase in the cost of fuel.

This is symptomatic of a problem that is broader than just fuel, and that is securing and sustaining adequate funding for public education, especially in an economic downturn.

NORRIS: Now just to clarify, the school district did not automatically extend the walking distance, but you've passed a measure that gives you a right to do so if necessary. Right now, students are entitled to bus service if they live more than one mile from an elementary school, one and a half miles from a middle school or two miles from a high school.

Ms. COX: That's correct.

NORRIS: How might that change?

Ms. COX: It all depends on what the circumstances are in terms of the requirements for funding, but I would anticipate that there might be a quarter-mile change in any of those distances.

NORRIS: At all age levels, for elementary-school students through high school?

Ms. COX: It could be. It really - it depends on what the circumstances are and how much savings is necessary and what would be available, depending on the change that's made.

Obviously, we're not going to do it at the expense of the safety of the children.

NORRIS: The superintendent in Montgomery County said this proposal sends, quote, "a very strong message." Is that, in part, what this is really all about, sending a message to taxpayers who might be willing to swallow a tax hike or to unions that might consider a trim in their salaries?

Ms. COX: I honestly think that it is an effort to send a message, to let people know what is the cost of public education, what is...

NORRIS: So it's symbolic?

Ms. COX: I don't think it's necessarily symbolic. It's a legitimate request, because we've seen the cost of gasoline rise in terms of, you know, the price per gallon. Who knows where it's going to go? The request was simply to provide the flexibility. We haven't actually extended the walking distance, but it's a wake-up call. You need to be alert to and support and provide the resources that are necessary to get kids to school, to provide them with a quality education and a great teacher in the classroom.

NORRIS: Sharon Cox is a Montgomery County school board member. Ms. Cox, thanks so much for talking to us.

Ms. COX: Thank you very much.

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