Representing a group of approximately 30 parents, Nancy Hofmann and Andre K. Rush wrote the following letter presented to the Harford County Board of Education at a Board business meeting on Monday, July 29. A copy of the letter was provided to The Dagger for publication.
On behalf of the students who attend Magnet programs at the Science and Math Academy at Aberdeen High School, the Global Studies Program/International Baccalaureate Program at Edgewood High School, and the Natural Resources and Agricultural Science Program at North Harford High School, we urge you to rescind, or at the very least postpone, your decision to impose a depot stop transportation system.
Our request is based on several factors, detailed below.
• First and foremost, you have violated HCPS Board of Education Policy.
1. Policy Number 20-0008-000 (Student Transportation – Bus Routes and Stops) explicitly states, “If a request for a material modification to an existing bus route or stop is made, all affected persons shall be provided notice and opportunity for input.” Families impacted by the Board’s decision to implement a depot bus stop transportation system were not notified of the Board’s intent to do so prior to the decision being finalized. Further:
a. The Board did not provide impacted families with the same 30-day public comment period afforded other policy reviews as explained by Teresa Schmid, Board of Education Administrative Assistant, during a phone conversation held July 25, 2013, and substantiated by Policy Number 22-0017-000 (Amendments to Board Policy/Procedures) which states, “The Board policies and procedures may be modified, amended or deleted only by a two-thirds (5) vote at any regular or special meeting of the total membership (7) (i.e. 5 or more members) following a 30-day notice of the proposed change.”
b. General Counsel Patrick Spicer did not present the proposed policy change to the Board of Education before an open meeting during the 2012-2013 school year.
c. Families were individually notified via letters dated July 17, 2013, only after the Board finalized its decision to impose the depot stop transportation system. The letters informed families that, “In May 2013, the County Council approved the county budget, which resulted in a shortfall of $20.2 million in the Board of Education’s previously approved budget. As a result, revenue-generating strategies, as well as many expenditure reductions, were considered and several were adopted in order to save teaching positions and minimally impact the students in the classroom.” Harford County Executive David Craig’s Chief of Staff, Aaron Tomarchio, disputes that there is a $20.2 million shortfall and further stated during a phone conversation held July 25, 2013, that the County approved the same level of funding for the 2013-2014 school year as it did for the 2012-2013 school year. Mr. Tomarchio’s response is further supported by County Executive Craig’s July 22, 2013, email response to a concerned parent which stated, “When each magnet program was created during my time in office, I fully funded each project, including the transportation cost. After that the Board began to reappropriate the funding to other areas. I am not permitted to halt that. The Board never had a public hearing to announce this move or the one to require students to pay a fee to play on a team or perform in a play. Members may state that they would or did ask me for funding and that I did not provide it but I did provide it for magnet programs which I believe are essential for students.”
• Secondly, in addition to this policy violation, when students applied and were accepted to each of these Magnet programs, including incoming Freshmen, they accepted with the understanding that,“Any student attending a magnet program outside of his or her attendance area will be picked up and dropped off at a consolidated bus stop that is within walking distance of his or her home,” as noted on www.hcps.org prior to the decision to impose the depot stop transportation system. Further:
1. The 2012-2013 Parent-Student Handbook & Calendar supports this statement. On page 22, under the Magnet Program and Alternative Education Transportation Guidelines, it states, “Stops for developments are located at the entrance of the development.”
2. The Board’s decision to establish each magnet student’s home high school as the designated depot stop this close to the start of the 2013-2014 school year, and even efforts to provide parents with an opportunity to identify an alternate high school as a depot stop, presents extraordinary hardships for working parents who are unable to arrange transportation to and from the depot stop. For many, the closest high school depot stop is a considerable distance from and in some cases even in the opposite direction of the Magnet program they attend. For others, even selecting a different high school as their children’s depot stop presents other challenges, including safety concerns.
• As you have heard, or will hear, parents have additional concerns regarding the safety of their children who must remain at the depot stop until they are picked up or may be forced to walk home from the depot stop.
1. The 2012-2013 Parent-Student Handbook & Calendar also states on page 22 under the Magnet Program and Alternative Education Transportation Guidelines that, “The school needs to have the student’s current address and phone number. Changes cannot be given to the Transportation Department or bus driver by the parent, student or guardian.” Will each high school identified as a depot stop accept responsibility for maintaining contact information for each Magnet program student who arrives at the depot stop before and after school? In the event of an emergency before a parent arrives to pick his or her child up, will the school assume liability for addressing the emergency and contacting the parent? Will an administrator or staff member be available when the students arrive at the depot stop in the morning and/or until the last student is picked up at the depot stop?
2. For those students remaining at the depot stop until they can be picked up – some of which will be well after the high school day ends – parental concerns include whether or not students will be permitted into the depot stop’s high school building, particularly in the event of inclement weather or other unexpected circumstances. Parents have also questioned whether students who choose to drive to the depot stop as a cost-savings measure themselves, will be able to park there, particularly if they are transporting other students who have no other means of getting to and from the depot stop. This raises the concern of increased traffic and potential impact to the depot stop high school. Did the Board request and conduct an Environmental Assessment before rendering its decision to impose the depot stop transportation system? If so, please share the findings. If not, why?
3. For those students who may be forced to walk home from the depot stop, we share additional safety concerns including inclement weather that can both impede the pedestrian’s and driver’s visibility thereby putting our students and the larger community at risk of accident. Limited access to sidewalks – and in some communities no access to sidewalks – may require students to walk on the shoulder of the road, also increasing the risk of accident. Students required to cross major roads to get home from the depot stop are at even greater risk. If the safety of our children is one of the Board’s primary concerns, are these risks you are willing to take? As members of the Board and in some cases our elected officials, would you be willing to put the safety of your children in jeopardy?
• Finally, we believe that imposing the depot stop transportation system at this point in time and without involving and soliciting input specifically related to this matter is in direct contrast to your Parent/Community Involvement Policy (#10-0004-000). The purpose of referenced policy is to “affirm the Board’s commitment to establishing a strong and effective system of parent and community involvement in the educational environment and with the Harford County Public Schools and to establish standards and criteria related thereto.”
The policy statement details, “HCPS and individual schools will inform and involve parents, the family of students and the community in student’s learning and educational activities and all related decisions.” It further states, “HCPS, in pursuing and implementing the above policy goals, will facilitate, support and encourage parents, families and community members in participating as active partners in the educational process and in decision making at both the school and system level.” The Board of Education has not provided us an opportunity to be active partners in the decision making process related to this specific matter. It is for that reason that we urge you to rescind, or at the very least postpone, your decision to impose a depot stop transportation system until a public hearing can be held and input from all impacted families is formally considered.
We recognize that Magnet program students are not the only students impacted by the expenditure reductions and impact to transportation to and from school. As parents, our desire to collectively brainstorm alternative solutions on this matter is great and we respectfully request that you provide us the opportunity to do so before moving forward.