It took many in the Bel Air Elementary School community nearly a year to overcome problems created primarily by last year's school budget process.
One of the measures taken to balance the budget for this school year was to eliminate shorter bus routes, which forced some students who rode buses to school to become students who walk to school.
Bel Air Elementary was particularly hard hit, with many more vehicles showing up at dismissal to pick up students. It overloaded Lee Street and created an ongoing mess that the Bel Air town commissioners tried to fix by legislating the vehicles from using the street in front of the school.
With most of the school year gone, it seems as if the Bel Air Elementary School community has finally, in military parlance, adapted, improvised and overcome. Here's how the process has developed, rather successfully, in recent weeks.
Parents sat in their vehicles patiently one afternoon last week in a line that stretched around the perimeter of the lot in front of the Harford County Board of Education's former headquarters, iconically known for generations as 45 E. Gordon, and onto Gordon Street.
Barry Judy was among those who lined up shortly before the 4 p.m. dismissal at Bel Air Elementary School. He said teachers get the name of the child from the parent and then bring the child to the vehicle.
A group of children, watched over by faculty members, gathered at the edge of the lot to be taken to their parents.
The parents and children were gone by around 4:10 p.m.
Before the new system to pick up students from Bel Air Elementary School was instituted, Judy said he would park and walk to the side entrance to the school and pick up his child.
"It can take a little bit longer, getting your child, but other than that, it seems to work out," Judy said.
Judy noted he had not seen an announcement about the change, but he felt it was safer for the children.
"It's nice that the teachers are bringing them out and making it safer for them," he said.
New policies cause congestion
Since Harford County Public Schools implemented new busing policies — elementary school students who live less than 1 mile from their schools were no longer eligible for waivers to receive school bus service — the number of families walking and driving to pick up and drop off their kids has increased.
Twenty students were walking to Bel Air Elementary during the 2012-2013 school year, HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader said. The number increased nearly eight times to 150 walkers this school year.
Bel Air Elementary School also became a fourth tier school this year, dismissing at 4 p.m., which runs into rush hour, adding even more congestion that caused gridlock from in front of the school onto Lee Street and North Main Street.
Last October, Bel Air town commissioners first addressed the congestion by changing parking on Lee Street near the elementary school from 15-minute parking to a No Parking zone.
"As more parents are now taking their kids to school, the drop-off is forming a line and it is going out into the street," Bel Air Planning Director Kevin Small said at the time. "Buses and traffic have to go around the street to get through the traffic."
At the beginning of the school year, Bel Air Elementary School administrators revised their dismissal to meet the needs of a fourth tier schedule and an increase in the number of students designated as walkers, Lader said.
As the year went on, however, the number of people accessing the school increased and a parent advisory committee was set up to evaluate the parking situation, she said.
"As a result of the work with the advisory group, town police and [HCPS], a new car pick-up loop was created," Lader said in an email. "Parents have been given the option to participate in the pick-up loop at the end of the school day that is located in the Gordon Street parking lot."
In early April, Bel Air police and police cadets, the latter who enforce parking regulations, spent several hours laying out the plan for the pick-up loop on the Gordon Street lot.
Lader said parents can also park on Gordon or Lee streets or any other legal parking space. She said parents who have elected to participate in the loop are experiencing a six-minute dismissal process.
The dismissal loop took 11 minutes on the first day, April 14; nine minutes on April 15; and six minutes on April 16, Lader said.
Last week, the times were almost cut in half on most days. On some days, one or two police cadets have helped monitor the loop and one of them, who declined to give his name, said everything has been working well.
Even during the rain on Tuesday and Wednesday, the loading process took only 10 minutes.
Bel Air Elementary School, according to Lader, is the only school experiencing issues since the implementation of the new policies.
"The other schools moved to fourth tier have not had similar issues," Lader said in an email. "We attribute this to the fact that Bel Air Elementary had an increase in walkers this year in addition to the schedule change."
Jim Towle of Bel Air walked his two sons to his pickup truck, which was parked along Gordon Street across from the parking lot.
He expressed frustrations with the new pickup system, and with the school's placement in a fourth-tier schedule – the school day begins at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m., whereas schools on an earlier schedule open at 9 a.m., and students are dismissed at 3:30 p.m.
Parents of children at fourth-tier schools have made their frustrations clear to Harford County Board of Education members during the school year about how the later schedules have had a negative impact on their family and work schedules.
"It's all together," Towle said. "It's a good thing I'm self employed, so I can make it happen."
He noted that the new system for picking up children has led to parents who do not get in the line to park anywhere they can find a spot around North Main Street and Gordon, whether it is on the street or the lots of nearby businesses such as the Klein's ShopRite supermarket on North Main.
On most days, the lines of vehicles waiting to enter the lot extend in both directions on Gordon Street and around to North Main in front of the Historical Society of Harford County headquarters.
He was also concerned about children standing outside waiting in bad weather.
"The weather is nice, and it's going a little better, but people are using other people's parking spots," Towle said.
Policing the loop
About a month before the new loop was implemented, Bel Air Police officers handed out 15 warning letters to people not authorized to park in the Gordon Street lot.
But, some of those left with a warning letter were teacher interns, who should have been authorized to park there.
Bel Air Elementary School employees and visitors are authorized to park in the lot, Lader said. The parking lot belongs to Harford County government and can be used by Bel Air Elementary School through a memorandum of understanding.
Chief Leo Matrangola said the police department has a list of tag numbers for authorized vehicles and handed out warning letters accordingly. He said trespassers would receive a $35 ticket on second offense.
Matrangola said the police department has not ticketed any vehicles for illegally parking in the lot.
Cadets from the Bel Air Police Department have been helping direct traffic and patrol the new dismissal loop at the Gordon Street lot, Matrangola said.
He said one cadet is assigned to the Gordon Street lot and would remain there until he felt comfortable with the process.
Keeping kids safe, but home later
Kristen Donarum, 38, of Bel Air, picks up her fourth-grade daughter from school twice a week to ensure she makes it to her after-school activities on time.
"She has after school activities and I have to pick her up to get her there on time," Donarum said. "If she rides the bus home, I probably don't get her until [4:20 p.m.]."
Donarum, who said she spends about 45 minutes picking up her daughter, arriving around 3:15 p.m., said the pick-up loop is very organized and she prefers it.
LeeAnn Hoerr, 31, of Bel Air, has a first-grader at Bel Air Elementary School. She said although her daughter is still eligible for bus service, the fourth tier time changes made it necessary for her to pick her child up.
"My daughter caught the bus in kindergarten," Hoerr said Tuesday while waiting in the pick-up loop. "It's just more convenient to me [to pick her up] and since they switched times, I can get her home faster than the school bus can and I want her home before five o'clock."
Hoerr said she believes the pick-up loop is a safer alternative to the old dismissal process – students were dismissed and parents had to hunt for their children.
"It's hard enough for the teachers to make sure all the parents pick up the kids right," Hoerr said. "And with that happening I felt like it was a lot easier for a stranger to come in or a kid to get lost in the crowd."