Twice over the past year, an aging Head Start school bus has broken down, forcing Alejandro Martinez to skip a day at work so he can stay home and care for his two children enrolled in the program.
As a result, the Ellicott City resident says his job working in building maintenance is now on the line.
"My boss told me I need to choose between my children and my job," Martinez said Tuesday during a forum People Acting Together in Howard, or PATH, held to urge board of education and county executive candidates to support PATH initiatives. Among those initiatives are bringing Head Start transportation under the auspices of the Howard County Public School System transportation department.
PATH is a countywide, multi-racial, interfaith, non-partisan citizens organization with 15 institutional members representing more than 20,000 adults. The organization invited school board candidates and county executive candidates to St. John Baptist Church Tuesday night to pledge their support for PATH initiatives.
Martinez spoke to the more than 600 in attendance in Spanish, but his remarks were also projected behind him in English.
Martinez is one of many Head Start parents that have faced a transportation dilemma as Head Start buses — most about 12 years old and running in excess of 120,000 miles — break down on almost a weekly basis, according to Bita Dayhoff, president of the Howard County Community Action Council.
"Our buses are constantly breaking down and costing us a lot to be repaired. That creates a disruption in delivery of services because the schools are ready, the teachers are ready, our families are ready and we just cannot get the children from home to school," she said.
Head start operates three buses that transport the program's 284 students, ages 3 and 4, to and from class. But with the aging vehicles breaking down regularly, Dayhoff said CAC hopes to work with HCPSS to come to a resolution where HCPSS can support student transportation to Head Start.
Based on their comments Tuesday, all Howard County Board of Education candidates support this effort to improve transportation reliability for Head Start parents.
"As a pediatrician, I have seen the impact that Head Start makes on children's lives." said Zaneb Beams, a school board candidate. "It is not OK for our children to be waiting in unsafe situations. It is not OK for their parents to be risking their livelihood."
CAC has looked into purchasing new buses, but they would cost about $100,000 each, which CAC could not afford, Dayhoff said.
Just last month, CAC spent $15,000 to repair its buses, she added.
School board candidate Mike Smith called the effort to have the school system provide Head Start transportation "long overdue," adding that HCPSS should consider incorporating the program into its operations
"The Head Start pre-k program is doing what we should be doing, so why shouldn't we provide transportation to all children participating in the Head Start program both to and from," he said.
In addition to Head Start transportation, PATH also asked Board of Education candidates to support the organization in advocating for the full implementation of the school system wellness, including Phase II, which adds an additional hour of physical education each week in elementary schools.