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Free bus service may end for parochial students

Howard County's long-standing but controversial practice of providing free bus service to hundreds of parochial school students may end this year because of the county school system's mounting financial pressures.

At issue is free bus transportation for about 650 students who attend five Catholic schools in the county, a service budgeted at $206,000 next fiscal year.

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With county officials intending to limit funding for schools, some parents of public school students are upset that private school students are getting bus rides at taxpayers' expense. They contend that the money could be better spent on other needs. The $206,000, for example, could pay for six new teachers or buy 103 new computers.

"We're in a tough time," said Alfred McKegg of West Friendship, the parent of a fourth-grader at Bushy Park Elementary School. "Teachers are needed. These families have chosen to go to private schools and not put their trust and their resources into the public schools. These people don't need the assistance."

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But James Coolahan Jr., whose daughter rides a public-school bus to her seventh-grade classes at Resurrection-St. Paul's School in Ellicott City said, "We as taxpayers have a right to public transportation. There's no religious education being provided on the bus."

The debate over whether Howard's school system should pay to bus parochial school students is not new, but the practice is coming under greater scrutiny this year.

In part, this is because the state has cut $437,000 from Howard's share of state school transportation aid for next fiscal year. Also, county officials are telling school board members they must cut millions of dollars from the schools' proposed budget because a lack of revenue.

Public support for ending the bus service to parochial school students appears to be growing. Some parents, the county PTA Council and the Howard County Education Association have urged the board to transfer the money into other areas of the education budget.

The American Civil Liberties Union has decried the practice of busing parochial school students as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

"It is state taxpayer money going to parochial schools," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's state chapter. "While it's not strictly speaking a voucher, it effectively serves the same purpose . . ."

Howard began transporting parochial school students during World War II, when there were efforts to conserve gas and other supplies, parents and community leaders said.

1943 law

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Under a 1943 law, enacted by the General Assembly before Howard became a charter county, the school system must provide bus transportation to parochial school students only if those students live on existing bus routes and if there is space for them on buses.

Those conditions were to ensure that it wouldn't be too costly for public school systems to provide the service, said Don LaFond, head of the state education department's pupil transportation office.

Almost half of the state's 23 school districts have similar laws. Those without such laws don't have parochial schools or only have parochial schools that aren't situated by established school bus routes, Mr. LaFond said.

Among Baltimore-area school districts, the only other jurisdiction that provides bus service to parochial school students is Carroll County, which spends $37,000 a year on one bus route to a Catholic school in Westminster. Baltimore County has a similar law requiring the school system to provide bus service to parochial school students, but it has not had a request in six or seven years, officials there said.

Howard provides bus transportation to students who attend Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Ellicott City, St. Augustine School in Elkridge, St. Louis School in Clarksville, Resurrection-St. Paul's School in Ellicott City and Bethel Christian Academy in Savage.

The schools have adapted their opening and closing times to match the timing of public-school bus services. They also close their schools on days when public schools are closed.

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Because Howard's law originally was enacted by the General Assembly, only the state legislature can repeal or amend it. Former Del. William C. Bevans, a Democrat who represented Howard and Prince George's counties, tried to introduce legislation six years ago to repeal the Howard law, but he withdrew his proposal after he received little support from other county legislators.

Howard's school board has grappled with the issue for years, but always has decided to pay for the cost of transporting parochial school students. The issue is to be discussed at a work session Thursday.

"In the past, there has always been enough support on the board to continue the process," said Susan Cook, board chairwoman. "I don't know how much of that support has simply been a feeling we have to follow the law.

"There are others who are encouraging us to challenge the law by breaking it," she said. "If we're going to challenge this in court, it's going to cost attorney fees."

At least one board member, Karen Campbell, has made up her mind: She says she does not want the school system to continue paying to bus parochial school students. "It's a matter of public money for public education," she said.

But parents of students in Howard County parochial schools argue that transporting their children is actually saving the county money.

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They say instead of paying more than $6,000 per student to educate their children in public schools, the county just pays $316 per parochial school pupil for bus transportation.

"It really does result in a savings to county taxpayers, because without the bus service, without question, a portion of our family would have to send their children to public schools," said Brad Maunz, head of the transportation committee at St. Louis School Clarksville. "In the age with both parents working, the public transportation is crucial in getting students to school."

Taxpayers, too

Parochial school parents also argue that public buses ferrying their children do not represent a breach of the separation of church and state. They say they're also taxpayers -- who just want to see a fair share of their tax dollars going toward busing their children to school.

"The family that is receiving the bus service are full-time taxpayers to the county," Mr. Maunz said.

Sister Rita Dorn, principal at Saint Augustine School in Elkridge, said taking away bus service would be a hardship to several of the school's 40 students who ride public school buses. She fears some of those families would end up enrolling in public schools if the bus service no longer were provided.

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"Parents have a right to choose the education they want for their child," Sister Dorn said. "The freedom of choice means that they should be allotted the transportation."

Parents of public school students dismiss such arguments. They say that tax money is collected to support public education, not parochial schools.

They also say parochial school students should be a treated in a manner similar to children attending public schools outside their neighborhoods, who now do not ride public-school buses.

"Parents have decided to send them to nonpublic schools because they want them to get that certain education," said Lynn Benton, PTA Council president. "The few hundred dollars they're going to spend on bus transportation" is not going to matter.


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