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Harford County parents and students blast bus route changes, sports and activity fees

AgricultureBudgets and Budgeting

Forty-one Harford County students, parents and elected officials pleaded with members of the Board of Education Monday evening to reverse course on policies designed to reconcile the school system's budget for Fiscal Year 2014, specifically policies that call for families to pay fees for their children to participate in sports or activities, and consolidated bus routes and stops.

The speakers were part of a crowd of more than 200 people that filled the board room and the lobby of the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air.

Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, said there were 175 people in the board room – its capacity, including members of the school board and the top administrators of the school system's Leadership Team.

At least another 30 people were in the lobby, watching the proceedings on a flat-screen television mounted to a wall.

The school board voted on June 10 to implement measures such as the fees, consolidated bus routes and cutting positions to reconcile a $20 million gap in what school officials had requested in funding from their local, state and federal sources and what they actually provided.

The $424.7 million budget passed 6-3 last month and took effect July 1. School officials sent letters to parents July 17 with details of changes to the bus routes.

Andre Rush, of Abingdon, spoke to the board Monday while holding of a copy of his property tax bill in one hand and the check he planned to use to pay it in the other.

"I just wanted to remind you of where the money comes from," he said.

Magnet programs affected

Rush's son, Andre Jr., 14, is a rising sophomore and attends the Science and Mathematics Academy magnet program at Aberdeen High School.

His son and more than 400 of his fellow students who attend the magnet program at Aberdeen, as well as at Edgewood and North Harford High Schools, which host the Global Studies Program/International Baccalaureate Program and the Natural Resources and Agricultural Science Program, respectively, will lose direct bus transportation for programs which are open to high-achieving students, the father said.

Rush said school officials are forcing him to become a "bus driver" and estimated it would cost more than $1,400 to take his son to and from the magnet program during the school year.

"Why am I paying taxes so that I can take my son to school, so you can transfer this cost to me?" he asked.

Madelyn Miller, 14, a rising sophomore in the International Baccalaureate magnet program at Edgewood High, said she applied for magnet programs in the eighth grade. The Fallston resident said she is pushed to excel by being with like-minded students, even though it meant getting up earlier and leaving school later than others.

"I believe the magnet programs are very beneficial and I greatly enjoy mine," she said. "They were sold as, they would provide transportation and now it is being limited. I do understand the money must come from somewhere, but this plan creates a large challenge."

Magnet program students will be required to travel to a depot at the high school in their communities for the morning pickup by a school bus and then find their own transportation home after their school day ends, since the bus schedules of their home schools and the magnet program schedules do not match, school officials said earlier this month. The only countywide programs not affected are those at Harford Technical High School, where home-to-school bus service will continue to be provided.

No input claimed

Parents lamented they had no opportunity to give input on the bus schedule changes and the "pay-to-play" fees.

Nancy Hoffman, who has worked to organize parents of students in magnet programs, claimed the transportation changes violate board of education policies which require officials to notify anyone who would be affected by a change to a bus stop or route and give them a chance to provide input on the proposed change.

"As parents, our desire to collectively brainstorm alternative solutions on this matter is great and we respectfully request that you provide us the opportunity to do so before moving forward," Hoffman said, reading from a letter she wrote to the school board.

Many parents who spoke took issue with the impact on magnet programs, along with having to somehow juggle work schedules with picking up and dropping off children who will not be picked up outside their houses anymore.

Four elementary schools, including Bakerfield in Aberdeen, plus Bel Air, Forest Lakes and Red Pump in the Bel Air area, will be placed in the fourth tier of school schedules, with later start and end times. Parents told the board they will have to adjust their work schedules and child care arrangements before school starts in late August.

"We are now faced with overlapping and tight time constraints," said Kelly Jester, vice president of the Red Pump Parent Teacher Association.

Megan Greco, a Bel Air Elementary parent, expressed concern about the impact of increased congestion at her child's school, with its small drop-off area and potential conflicts with traffic at the nearby Saint Margaret School.

"My worst fear would be that an impatient driver, filled with road rage over the congestion, flies up Lee Street and in frustration hits a child, my child, your child, your grandchild," Greco said. "Our children's safety should not be jeopardized for the almighty dollar."

'Pay-to-play'

Speakers also blasted 'pay-for-play' fees, which require families to pay $50 per child to play an interscholastic sport, or $25 for an extracurricular activity.

Dave Glenn, a Havre de Grace city councilman, who has also been a youth sports coach for more than 30 years, said college admissions officials primarily look for whether an applicant can handle the course work and the types of extracurricular activities the applicant is involved in.

"Due to fiscal constraints in any given household, the pay-to-play concept may very well limit the opportunity to become that well-rounded student and more importantly, limit their future educational opportunities," Glenn said.

County Councilmen Dion Guthrie and Richard Slutzky took school officials to task for blaming the county for not fully funding their budget request.

Slutzky said the letter sent to parents about the bus changes made it seem the county had cut the school system's budget, when County Executive David Craig had, in fact, increased local funding for operations by nearly $2 million over the last fiscal year and provided more money for capital projects as well.

He said the county council, which is not a "funding authority" for the county, would have to shift funds from other county agencies to fully fund the school system's request.

"In the present economy it would be very difficult for the council to cut tens of millions of dollars from other government departments and agencies and give it to the board of education," Slutzky explained.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association – the local teachers' union, countered Slutzky's argument, claiming the county has "an enormous fund balance that could be allocated to your public schools."

Nancy Reynolds, who was unanimously elected by her fellow board members as school board president Monday, said the new measures were approved as part of the budget process, but the specifics are still being implemented.

"The public input was very important, because we're still in the implementation process right now," Reynolds said.

Ben Barsam, who was sworn in as the student representative for the 2013-2014 school year Monday, sat behind the dais for the first time, listening to each of the 41 speakers.

"It showed me the very real issues that we have to face this year, and I'm looking forward to the job that we have to do," Barsam said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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