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To help cut busing costs, Fairfax officials suggest getting more kids to walk to school

By Fredrick Kunkle - Washington Post Staff Writer

Almost everyone has a grandparent who claims to have walked two miles to school every morning. Uphill. In the snow. Etc.

In Fairfax County, it could soon be your 12-year-old trudging to school.

Hard times have a way of making old ideas seem new. With nothing but grim budgets ahead, some members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors want the county's schools to save money on buses by encouraging more kids to walk to school, perhaps by moving back the boundaries for bus-riding eligibility.

It's an idea that has received more attention nationwide in recent years as a way to fight child obesity, reduce air pollution and ease traffic. It became especially popular when diesel fuel prices climbed to $4 a gallon a year ago, and it's popular now as governments struggle through the worst recession in generations.

The cost of putting a school bus on the street is approximately equal to keeping a teacher on staff, said Linda P. Farbry, director of transportation for Fairfax public schools.

It also doesn't hurt that the campaign -- especially the "Walking School Bus" that encourages parents to coordinate neighborhood routes, wear safety vests and share escort duty -- fits with the baby boomer habit of reviving childhood practices. An oft-quoted study found that in 1969, 41 percent of students walked or bicycled to school. By 2001, that figure had dropped to 13 percent.

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) has his own childhood memories.

"The schools do nothing to teach the benefits of walking and biking to school," McKay said. "Somehow we got away from that, because when I went through the schools, they had presentations by police and others talking about the importance of walking and biking to school."

McKay's suggestion that more kids walk also reflects the growing financial tensions between the School Board, which sets school policies and answers mostly to parents, and the Board of Supervisors, which controls school funding and answers mostly to taxpayers. McKay said that one of the biggest complaints he hears from constituents is about the number of half-full school buses they see.

But there are also plenty of reasons why bucking a 40-year trend of transporting kids to school is not going to be easy. Fairfax, which occupies 400 square miles, was built around the automobile.

Noreen C. McDonald, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who studies children's transportation habits, said that walking has declined as distances to schools have increased, the percentage of working mothers has doubled and attitudes about safety have changed.

"People have some very strong fears about leaving their children unsupervised," McDonald said.

Susan Mosios, 47, a substitute teacher and jewelry designer who lives in Lorton, said she allows her 9-year-old son, Jacob, to walk to school, but only so far. "I'd like it to be like the old days, when people could walk. But I worry about the people who could take the child," she said outside Laurel Hill Elementary School.

Fairfax transportation officials said they understand the concern. "We're already having difficulty with parents who live inside these boundaries, saying it's already too far for a kindergartner to walk a mile," Farbry said. "And we don't dispute that."

Under current regulations, elementary students ride the bus if they live more than a mile from school. Middle and high school students can use buses if they live more than 1 1/2 miles from school. And about 10,000 students who live inside the boundaries are eligible for busing because they face particular safety hazards on their route, such as a major highway crossing, or they have disabilities or belong to special programs.

The Fairfax district, which buses about 64 percent of its students, has tried to squeeze savings on buses, often to parents' dismay. It has eliminated some neighborhood stops and tweaked schools' daily schedules. The goal is to cut its fleet by 90 buses, or about 8 percent, from 1,150 last year, Farbry said. So far, the district has taken 54 buses off the street.

Two years ago, a district study suggested that extending the distance that middle and high school students walk by half a mile would save $975,000 a year.

Montgomery County's school board also explored a similar maneuver to save money, voting in June 2008 to grant officials emergency powers to extend the bus boundaries if fuel prices rose further.

Brian Edwards, a schools spokesman, said that no change has been necessary and that the system continues to use boundaries of one mile for elementary school children, 1 1/2 miles for middle school students and two miles for high school students.

Fairfax is hunting for any savings in the face of a $315.6 million gap in fiscal 2010 that has forced County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to call for cuts up to 15 percent.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she supports the idea of having more children walk if they can do so safely and said that considerable sums have been invested in trail and pedestrian improvements.

At Laurel Hill Elementary, three-quarters of its population walks, largely because it's close to residential housing. Principal Suzie Montgomery said that about 600 of 800 students walk.

"I think it fosters a sense of community," said Christine Morin, 39, a Laurel Hill parent who has coordinated a schedule with four other families to escort their children to school, including her second-graders, twins Ben and Chase.

On a blustery day last week, Morin gathered her gang at the school entrance and headed into a light rain.

"Everybody here? One, two, three, four, five, six -- okay," she said to herself, after negotiating an intersection with help from a crossing guard. Hidden under rain-whipped umbrellas, the six young walkers looked like walking backpacks as they headed down Western Hemlock Way into a subdivision so new that it's still mostly treeless.

Meghan Wommack, 8, braving puddles in sneakers and a fuchsia slicker, said she liked walking, even in the rain, and certainly more than taking the bus, as the kids used to. For one thing, she didn't have to bother with older kids.

Ben Morin, 8, agreed. "Walking is better, because people on the bus were cursing all the time," he said.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/17/AR2009111701665_pf.html