OUTSIDE my office a police car zoomed in. Blue lights glared across the plate glass window as a police officer reached for his gun and guarded the rear exit of the MTA bus. Another squad car arrived. A short time later a man was led off the bus in handcuffs and arrested.
I viewed this midmorning scene with alarm and dismay. This incident occurred during the same week Baltimore announced its intention to eliminate yellow school bus service to all but children with special needs. This actionwould place city school students on regular Mass Transit Administration buses or in the streets by next September.
City school officials first proposed elimination of 47 bus routes to cope with massive cuts in state transportation funding. These same cuts affected every jurisdiction in Maryland, but none eliminated buses. Baltimore, with its high proportion of special needs students, confronts the heftiest transportation costs in Maryland and copes with minimal funding.
Over the years the city has viewed the MTA as a viable alternative to the expensive maintenance of a yellow bus fleet. However, MTA service for students only looks free. Actually, the city's contributions to the MTA help offset the state's annual MTA deficit, and this costs our children dearly.
Citizens affected by the department's proposal were invited to bring their options to two recent meetings at North Avenue. Instead, distressed parents flooded school board chambers to express fears for their children.
Parents from Yorkwood Elementary and Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary spoke passionately about the dangers of drugs and weapons and abandoned, isolated stretches on the routes their children now would have to take to and from school.
Safety may be the most immediate concern, but there is another issue sleeping here -- attendance. The 1991 Maryland School Performance Program report shows Baltimore city's average attendance for grades one through six is 90.4 percent. When city students enter middle school, yellow school bus service ends and 11 year olds are introduced to riding the MTA. Notably, attendance drops immediately.
The school performance program makes attendance a top priority. But city students have been riding the MTA so long that administrators have ceased to question the practice. If middle school is a training ground for absentees and dropouts, the MTA provides the classroom.
Both before and after school, middle and high school students throughout the city wait on street corners for MTA buses. Students transfer once, often twice, at a variety of colorful if not desirable spots. MTA buses stop at shopping centers, in front of fast-food outlets. They carry not only students but anyone with the fare to ride. The temptations are many. Nowhere else in Maryland do these conditions apply.
Why aren't yellow school buses, or at least MTA buses designated only for school runs, available to all Baltimore students, when yellow buses are funded in every other subdivision?
Anita Nowery Durel writes from Baltimore.