Hundreds of parents have signed an online petition calling for a moratorium on the Arlington Public Schools' new approach to transportation — an approach that will require more students to walk, bike or ride in a car to school.
Superintendent Patrick Murphy announced the changes in a July letter. In general, the school system will begin enforcing an existing policy that affords busing to elementary school students who live more than 1 mile away from school and to middle and high school students who live more than 1.5 miles away.
The move is designed to reduce bus overcrowding, delays and travel time, Murphy stated.
Quite a few parents are upset.
"All Arlington students deserve bus service," Diane Shinn wrote on the online petition. "This new policy penalizes people who live near their schools and places an unfair burden on parents for whom driving their children to school every morning will be a hardship due to work schedules or for those parents who do not have reliable transportation of their own. Bad idea, APS!"
Resident Laurie Lenz wrote, "Walking to school is a nice idea. Forcing a kindergartener to cross Carlin Springs, George Mason or Route 50 ramps is ridiculous. Of course all the parents will have to drive their children now. This is a really bad idea with even worse implementation."
Enforcing the 1- and 1.5-mile radius rule was one recommendation to come from a transportation study from late last year intended to find ways to alleviate bus overcrowding and reduce how often buses were late to school, Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said.
In some cases, bus stops had been put in place within the defined walking distance to a school, he said. In other cases, students who lived within the 1-mile radius would walk a few blocks away from the school in order to reach a bus stop.
Because of that, Bellavia said, the school system doesn't have reliable numbers of how many students rode buses last year. This year, school officials expect 14,000 children will ride the bus and 9,000 will walk, bike or be driven.
As part of the new policy, 12 bus stops have been eliminated. That brings the total number of bus stops down from 1,795 to 1,783.
The school system will run the same number of buses, but expects at least 1,000 more students this year to be on those buses due to the skyrocketing student population, Bellavia said.
Yorktown and Wakefield high schools and Taylor, Glebe and Campbell elementary schools are the most affected, he said.
The school system may have made some errors in determining who should walk and who gets to ride the bus, he said.
Parents have the option of appealing the decision through the Arlington Public Schools website. The schools' transportation office then has a 15-day window to determine if an error was made.
As of Thursday morning, 55 appeals had been received. The appeal form will remain online indefinitely, Bellavia said.
As of Thursday night, more than 450 people had signed the online petition demanding the schools put a moratorium on the busing policy and to and implement "a truly public and transparent process for the creation and rollout of a new student transportation plan."
A Facebook group called Arlington Parents for Safe School Transportation also has surfaced. It had nearly 270 followers late Thursday.
Many parents have posted concerns about children walking to school, particularly young children. Others have raised issues about the unintended consequence of putting more inexperienced teen drivers on the road. And still others felt blindsided by the school, since the discussion about implementing this new policy apparently has been going on for nearly a year.
Jennifer Davis Mulchandani, who stated she helped launch the Facebook group, wrote on her blog: "APS is in ignore and defy mode. But ignoring the public isn’t good. Dr. Murphy, esteemed members of the school board, in case you haven’t noticed, people are pissed off. People feel betrayed and lied to. People all over Arlington think you let us down, and we don’t think you are trying to take any responsibility for the poor manner in which all of this bus stuff has been handled."
Bellavia said he wasn't sure the protests would have much of an effect, as Murphy has indicated the policy will not change.
The policy does have room for flexibility, he said. In cases where students would be forced to walk in high-traffic areas or on roads that don't have sidewalks, exceptions could be made to restore an eliminated bus stop.
"We're working with families that are having issues," Bellavia said. "One of the schools that has a number of upset parents is Taylor Elementary School. And we're working with those families… to fix any issues that are coming up."