Getting to and from school each day will be different for thousands of Harford County Public Schools students this coming school year as a result of a series of transportation changes announced Thursday.
The changes are so widespread that school officials are also advising parents to closely review their children's bus route information when it's released in the coming weeks, as routes and times have likely changed from last school year.
Four elementary schools, including three in the greater Bel Air area and one in Aberdeen, will be placed on later schedules, students in three high school magnet programs will have to first report to their home schools to receive transportation and many more students in all grades will be walking or using private transportation when the 2013-14 school year begins Aug. 26.
In addition, scores of bus stops will be eliminated for high and middle school students, the school system said. Parents of students affected by specific changes are being notified by letters sent Wednesday, HCPS said in a news release.
All of the changes are driven by budget concerns, according to the school system. The school system requested a $22 million increase in funding from Harford County for 2013-14, but received only about $1.9 million more than in the previous year. As a result, the news release noted, "it was necessary for the Board of Education to develop revenue-generating strategies and to identify expenditure reductions in order to balance the school system's budget."
Reducing bus service was one of the cost savings the school board identified after it approved the final operating budget. To raise more revenue, the board also approved implementation of student fees of $50 per sport and $25 per extracurricular activity. Also to save money, the board eliminated 115 jobs, including 46 teaching positions. All those moves have been criticized by parents.
Though specific details about who will be affected by the transportation changes weren't make public until this week, the changes are opposed by the county's private bus contractors, who provide the bulk of the daily student transportation and whose revenue will be cut as a result.
According to HCPS, the school system provided transportation to approximately 33,700 of its nearly 38,000 students last school year.
Later start, dismiss times
Four elementary schools have been added to the late starting fourth tier schedule: Bakerfield in Aberdeen and Red Pump, Bel Air and Forest Lakes in the greater Bel Air area.
The school day at these four locations will start at 9:30 a.m., and students will be dismissed at 4 p.m., half an hour earlier and later than last year.
Teri Kranefeld, HCPS manager of communications, said approximately 1,875 students will be affected, although final numbers won't be known until after new kindergarten enrollment, not included in the estimate, is tabulated. Kranefeld said three other schools will continue on Tier 4 schedules: William S. James in Abingdon, Havre de Grace Elementary and Deerfield in Edgewood.
Kranefeld said the number of students affected includes all students, whether they ride a bus or not, since the schedule chain affects everyone at the school, including staff.
"By modifying the school day for these four schools, buses will be able to service more schools, thereby decreasing the number of total buses necessary and eliminating costs associated with the extra buses, such as fuel, maintenance and personnel costs," the school system news release states.
HPCS provides transportation for students living within a one-mile radius of an elementary school and one and a half miles of a secondary school.
Over many years, students living within those limits have been able to obtain waivers and use buses, typically for safety reasons, such as no sidewalks or crossing guards at busy intersections. All prior waivers will be eliminated, the school system said.
Approximately 1,045 students will be affected, according to Kranefeld, who said the majority attend 11 schools located in "concentrated areas" of development. One example she provided is Aberdeen High, were there were 85 waivers last year.
"By eliminating the waivers and reducing the number of riders in close proximity, HCPS was able to further reduce the number of buses needed," the news release states. "Criteria that are used to determine non service areas in all other schools were applied to these cases and the exemptions were lifted."
Magnet program depot stops
Last year, students in high school magnet programs could get bus service within their neighborhoods to transport them directly to their respective magnet schools. That direct service will end for students enrolled in the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School, the Global Studies Program/International Baccalaureate Program at Edgewood High School and the Natural Resources and Agricultural Science Program at North Harford High School.
In all, Kranefeld said, 420 students will be affected. They will be asked to report to their home high schools where a bus will then transport them to and from their magnet schools. Because of a difference in schedule times, however, magnet students would not be able to use their home schools' regular bus, Kranefeld said, making it the parents' responsibility to get children to and from home schools.
Not affected by the depot set-up are students at Harford Technical High School, who also come from all over the county. Kranefeld said they will continue to receive regular bus service in their neighborhoods.
She also said while other school systems use shopping center parking lots and recreation areas as depot sites, "HCPS feels the safest practice is to have students wait for their bus on HCPS property."
In addition to cutting costs by using fewer buses, Kranefeld said in some cases, "this should reduce the time these students spend on the buses."
HCPS said middle and high school bus routes are being reconfigured to decrease the number of stops, as well as the length of the routes, where possible.
"What this means is where you might have had five stops along one road, there might now be three," Kranefeld explained. As a result, she said, some students may have to walk a little farther.
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She also emphasized that while this will affect both high school and middle school students who ride the bus, the two groups will still ride different buses to their respective schools. Only the North Harford High and Middle buses will continue to be shared as they have been in the past, she said.
Reducing the number of stops for middle and high school students will reduce the cost of completing a bus run, HCPS said.
Bus routes are still being finalized for the 2013-14 school year, HCPS said.
Routes, as well as bus stop locations, pick-up and drop-off times and bus numbers, will be posted on the school system's website as soon as they are available. An automated call will be made to notify parents/guardians when the information is posted.
"Parents are urged to review the routes and pay close attention to stop locations and bus numbers, as they most likely have changed from previous years," the HCPS release states. "Middle and high school parents especially will want to pay close attention to the information and the consolidated stop locations."
If parents of students affected by the transportation changes have not received information, they should visit their child's school Edline website or contact their child's school as soon as possible.