Harford councilman, citizens, work to stop school fees, bus consolidations

The 2013-2014 school year began Monday, and Harford County Public Schools officials proceeded with their implementation of fees for playing sports and participating in extracurricular activities and their adjustments to school bus routes countywide.

A county councilman and some of his fellow citizens, however, are seeking ways to stop them from going further.

Councilman Dion Guthrie and fellow county citizens, incensed about the impact those fees and bus route consolidations will have on families with children attending Harford County Public Schools, are seeking legal means to stop them.

The bus changes and new fees were among a series of measures approved by the Board of Education in June to reconcile the budget for the current fiscal year, after the county council and county executive declined to approve about $20 million more in county aid sought by school officials.

On Monday, Guthrie discussed with the Abingdon Community Council the plan to bring legal action against the school board if it doesn't back down.

"We believe that's illegal," Guthrie said, as he encouraged residents of Abingdon to join those from his district in Edgewood and Joppatowne at the Tuesday meeting.

About 50 people, most of them parents, attended that meeting at the Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct Station to air their complaints about the school system's changes. Like a similar session last week, the meeting was hosted by the Edgewood Community Council.

Guthrie said the parents' comments would be recorded so a lawyer can ultimately contest the school board's decision in court. He did not say, however, who will be responsible for bringing the legal action or for paying for it.

Several parents at the meeting said their children face longer walks to bus stops or are finding it harder to take part in magnet programs because of the lack of accessible transportation, as they said they were promised.

Lisa Hebb, of Abingdon, said it is middle-class parents like her who will be affected by the changes.

Under the new bus stop consolidations to save money, Hebb said, two of her children have to walk on a busy street to Route 924 to get to Patterson High School and Middle School, wait in a grassy area next to electrical transformers and have no adult supervision while they wait. Hebb also said she will have to pay for her children to participate in sports and other activities.

"I feel as though I am being discriminated against," she said.

Guthrie and fellow council members Joe Woods and Dick Slutzky said they are on the parents' side, as did state Del. Mary-Dulany James and State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, all of whom attended.

"I think what is going on is wrong," Jacobs said, noting she has two grandchildren in Harford schools and a daughter who is a teacher. "I hope that we can move forward and make some changes."

James said cuts like the ones made by the board of education can jeopardize Maryland's standing as the top state for education.

"I am here to support you all with a step forward," James told the crowd.

Guthrie said parents should identify factors such as whether their children have to pass the homes of known sex offenders and whether they have to walk much farther than they did previously.

"It just boggles my mind," Guthrie said about the bus situation, calling it "horrendous."

He noted that many of his constituents in Edgewood are single mothers who cannot afford to pay for sports and a lot of residents do not have credit cards or easy access to computers, if they are required to pay online.

Slutzky pointed out that Maryland has no legislation that requires schools to provide bus transportation to anyone except special-education students.

If, however, the school system verbally promised families of magnet-school children that they will be provided transportation within reasonable distance of the school, that is technically a contract, Slutzky said.

Woods said he is upset that the new rules only hurt students, teachers and families.

"I do feel personally that some of these decisions from the school board were based purely on political reasons," Woods said. "I hope we can get beyond that."

Many parents told the officials that their students attend magnet programs and they have to wait in distant or unsafe locations.

They also said many schools kick students out of the building at closing time, leaving them exposed outside or waiting at a library, where parents sometimes get calls from police if the library closes early.

Tiffaney Evans was one of several parents from the Forest Oaks neighborhood in Edgewood.

Evans said she specifically checked to make sure her child would not have to walk to school when she bought her house.

She also said 11 registered sex offenders live within walking distance of the school.

Evans thought the "pay-to-play" concept especially affects children.

"Everything is going up except for our income, and our children shouldn't have to pay for that, not in the education system," she said.

Mark Dillon, of Forest Hill, said his daughter would have to walk five or six miles, past the Harford County Detention Center, with no sidewalks, to get to her designated depot stop to wait for a bus to be taken to the magnet program.

The bus routes changes "was first and foremost a breach of contract. We were told our children would be provided transportation," Dillon said.

With very little notice, "as parents, we had no time to react whatsoever," he said.

"The kids are stressed because they don't know how they are going to get home," he said, adding he has had to drive his daughter, as many other parents have been doing.

"It is hard to say to our child, you can't go to the magnet program because it doesn't fit our work schedule," he said.

Lisa Baker, also of Forest Hill, said her two children attend the international baccalaureate program at Edgewood High School.

Parents were promised a well-lit, secure location to wait for the bus, she said.

"Bel Air High School at 6:30 in the morning is not well-lit," she said. "I am asking for a safe place for my kids to be picked up from school."

Meanwhile, Sheriff Jesse Bane and a deputy in charge of school resource officers and crossing guards told the crowd they are hoping to speed up hiring of new crossing guards, which must be requested by the schools.

Bane encouraged residents to let the Sheriff's Office know if a guard is needed at a certain location.

He explained, however, that getting a guard means putting in place a crosswalk or markings alerting drivers to a pedestrian crossing.

Guthrie described the school board's actions as "so disappointing," and discussed meeting with an attorney; he said he expected to have legal paperwork filed by the end of this week.

Bane, who also attended Monday's Abingdon meeting, said he will have to find money in his budget to cover the hiring of three additional crossing guards "because it is a priority; the safety of the kids is a priority."

"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed [that] we don't have a major episode because of this," Guthrie said, citing fears of an accident or a kidnapping.

Earlier protests

About 60 people attended a meeting hosted by the Edgewood Community Council at the Southern Precinct last Wednesday, to give their views on the ongoing controversy over the school budget to Harford County Council and school board members, and Aaron Tomarchio, Harford County Executive David Craig's chief of staff.

Parents encouraged county government and school officials to come together and find solutions to the budget impasse, which led to the school board implementing the fees and consolidating bus routes, as well as cutting school staff and canceling funding for employee raises.

Craig has noted his office increased funding to the schools to help cover a greater share of school employee pension costs as the state requires counties to cover a larger portion of local employee pensions than prior years, but could not fully fund the local portion of the school board's request in the face of declining student enrollment and lower overall county revenue because of the economy.

The county council declined to transfer funds from other departments to assist the school system.

A $424.7 million budget, funded by state, local and federal revenues, was approved June 10 at $19.5 million less than the $444.2 million school officials projected they would need to cover higher pension and employee health and dental care costs, plus the employee salary increases, which were worth about $7 million.

School officials projected the bus route consolidations would save $890,000, and the fees would raise $550,000, a combined $1.4 million in savings and revenue.

"They're saving a minuscule $1.4 million by making these kids go through this," Guthrie said.

He said people looking to stop the new bus routes and fees must "come up with hard evidence to show the difficulty" they will cause families.

Parents and students have protested both measures, citing the impact of the $50 per-sport fee and $25 per-activity fee on tight family budgets, and the safety risks for children who must walk more than a mile to school along busy streets and past the homes of known sex offenders.

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