Walking to School
Recently, I’ve been writing about the walking school bus concept, budget savings, and school bus boundary changes. There are additional benefits to rethinking how we get our kids to school.
A year ago, I first suggested looking at the walking school bus concept that is expanding into a number of communities across the country. While it’s true that the potential budget savings exist, the real value would be in the improvements to the health and safety of both our children and our community.
We have a conundrum in Fairfax County. Our reliance on driving made sense in an earlier time where schools, grocery stores, and other community uses were far apart. Kids took the bus, or their parents drove them to school. However, many of our older schools were not built to accommodate large numbers of parents dropping off and waiting for their children. Not only does this increase traffic congestion but it affects safety, with a dangerous mix of cars and children in school kiss and ride lots.
Today, the schools are required by law to provide bus service for every child who qualifies. This leads to many half-empty buses plying our roads—adding their part to congestion and pollution and costing the school system money that could otherwise be spent on teachers’ salaries and the classroom. Wouldn’t it make sense to rethink school bus routes to encourage children to walk or bike to school in areas that are safe to do so?
Let’s look at the safety aspect—local government’s primary responsibility. (My interest is personal as well as professional because it won’t be too long before my daughter is ready for her first day of class.) There is no question that in some areas of Fairfax County children shouldn’t walk, especially where sidewalks or trails are missing and heavily trafficked roads make walking hazardous. In those areas, it would make absolutely no sense to change busing boundaries. I am working with the school system to identify those areas so that on the County side we can do our part to complete missing sidewalks and trails.
In addition to safety, government has a strong responsibility to ensure the health of its residents. We’ve all read the reports about the childhood obesity epidemic—there’s another epidemic that’s had less press but is also of concern. According to the American Lung Association, asthma has become one of the most common childhood diseases. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has also noted the increase. Studies indicate that there is a strong link between asthma and air pollution—and a good part of that pollution is attributable to the number and kind of vehicles on the road. The EPA continues to classify us as an air quality nonattainment area—every vehicle we get off the road will help.
Health and safety notwithstanding, our challenging financial reality can’t be overlooked. Last year, we increased the tax rate and cut services (both schools and county) to cover a $600 million plus shortfall. This year, our combined shortfall is almost $500 million and could go higher. When we can save teachers’ jobs, hold the line on class size, and put dollars directly in the classroom without compromising health or safety, we ought to jump at the chance. I’ve been told that it costs about as much as the average teacher salary to put a school bus on the road.
I am pleased that the County and the school system are working together on this issue.
Also in This Issue of Supervisor McKay's Lee District Update: