Gearing up for legal action against Harford County Public Schools, County Councilman Dion Guthrie and Edgewood Community Council Chairman Jansen Robinson held a meeting Tuesday in Edgewood to gather potential testimony from parents harmed by the implementation of pay-to-play fees and cuts to school bus service in the school year just underway. Guthrie and Robinson said they have secured legal counsel with plans for a class action to halt both measures through a petition for preliminary injunction to be filed as early as Friday.
The new fees for students to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities, and system-wide cuts in school bus transportation services were approved by the Harford County Board of Education in June along with other budget-balancing moves for the fiscal year 2014. Together, the two controversial measures saved approximately $1.5 million in an operating budget totaling $424.7 million for the year. The fees will cost parents $50 per sport and $25 per student activity. School Board members have said they approved the savings to prevent additional cuts to teaching positions.
Councilman Guthrie said that he and Robinson were acting “on behalf of the citizens of Harford County”, and further legal steps would be determined following a meeting Thursday with an attorney, whom Guthrie said was working pro bono “for now”, and preferred to remain anonymous until court filings were made. “He told us to have this meeting to gather information,” Guthrie told approximately 60 parents and students assembled Tuesday night, asking speakers to focus on financial harm and threats to student safety.
Helping the crowd along, Guthrie provided a handout of a map showing the locations of sex offenders living in Harford County.
In addition to Guthrie, several other elected officials were in attendance, lending varying degrees of support to the effort. They included Del. Mary-Dulany James, who said that transportation cuts for students in magnet programs, “could jeopardize Maryland’s #1 ranking” in education, and she urged the group to move beyond criticism to find a “path forward.” State Sen. Nancy Jacobs was direct: “I think what’s going on is wrong.” County Councilman Joe Woods said he believed that the School Board’s actions were based on the “political agenda” of some members.
County Council Vice-President Richard Slutzky cautioned that except for special education, the school system was under no legal obligation to provide bus transportation to students. However, Slutzky outlined four legal issues that he said were “worthy of investigation” based on case history and precedent he had gathered from legal counsel, which, he later clarified, was not the attorney working with Guthrie and Robinson:
• Pay-to-play and student activity fees may violate Maryland’s constitutional provision for a free public education. Precedent has been set in states with similar provisions, Slutzky said, specifically in California and Indiana.
• Payment methods for pay-to-play and student activity fees may be discriminatory, because they require both a computer and a credit card. Slutzky said that some people cannot get credit and do not have ready access to a computer. “The argument is that [the requirement] creates classes of people,” he said.
• Established exemptions from pay-to-play and student activity fees may similarly create “classes of people”, Slutzky said. The children of teachers, active military personnel, and students receiving Free and Reduced Meals were exempted from the fees by the Board of Education. “It’s certainly a question,” Slutzky said, adding that cases have been won on similar grounds.
• The transportation cuts may breach a contract with magnet program parents. Even if the contract was only a verbal one, Slutzky said there is a “good case” that magnet program parents had a contract with the school system, providing for transportation from a consolidated bus stop near students’ homes. Such service has long been provided for magnet programs, and has been noted in program application materials, including those published for admission to the current school year. Under the cutbacks, parents are now responsible for student transportation to and from designated depots, typically a student’s home school, which may be beyond walking distance from their residences. “My legal counsel has offered an opinion that the case can be won,” Slutzky said, although he cautioned that other lawyers may have different opinions. “That’s why [these cases] go to trial,” he said.
Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane also appeared along with two of his deputies to review plans for the safety of students walking to and from school or school bus stops. Sgt. Scott Virden, supervisor of the School Policing Team, said that additional crossing guards were being hired, with staff currently filling in when necessary.
Several parents at the meeting expressed concerns about students walking along Willoughby Beach Road leading to Edgewood schools, and crossing MD 924 and Bright Oaks Drive near Patterson Mill Middle/High School.
Sheriff Bane encouraged parents to let his office know about additional intersections where crossing guards were needed, and reminded drivers to mind speed limits and stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Other safety measures in the works include reflective gear for crossing guards assisting students walking in the dark, and possible consideration of speed cameras when schools are in operation. Bane concluded, “I don’t think the Board of Education or elected officials realized the impact [of the transportation changes], and the ripple effect.”
A collective list of “harmful effects” presented at the meeting appears below, provided to The Dagger by parents Nancy Hofmann and Andre K. Rush on behalf of an estimated 300 parents:
Aug. 27, 2013
Mr. Jansen Robinson
President, Edgewood Community Council
c/o Harford County Sheriff’s Office (Southern Precinct)
1305 Pulaski Highway
Edgewood, MD 21040
On behalf of all families negatively impacted by the Harford County Board of Education’s decision to impose a depot stop transportation system for students who attend the Science and Math Academy at Aberdeen High School, the Global Science/International Baccalaureate Program at Edgewood High School and the Natural Resources/Agricultural Science Program at North Harford High School, I present our collective list of harmful effects. Please note that while this list reflects input received primarily from magnet program families, many of the harmful effects we’ve identified also apply to students impacted by 4th tier schedules and who once received bus service but no longer qualify this year based on the Board’s changes to the transportation policy.
1) Safety Concerns
• Students forced to walk or ride their bikes to and from depot stops
- in the dark
- in inclement weather (that impedes both pedestrian and driver visibility)
- across major highways
- on roads with limited access to or no sidewalks (causing students to walk on the shoulder of the road)
- increased potential for pedestrian-involved accidents
- in the path of known and unknown sexual predators
• Students forced to drive before they are ready because their parents have no other means to get them to and from the depot stop or magnet program
- Increased numbers of inexperienced drivers on the road
- Increased number of student-driven carpools, potentially putting the driver, other students and pedestrians at risk
- Impact of inclement weather exacerbates potential for accidents or fatalities
• Questions regarding how emergency situations (including unexpected closures) that arise before a child is picked up have gone unaddressed
- Who maintains emergency contact information?
- How are all students accounted for each day to ensure they have safely arrived at the depot stop and/or have been picked up by an authorized adult?
- Who will supervise students until they are picked up?
- Are those who supervising trained in CPR and first aid?
2) Educational Impacts/Academic Concerns
• Students forced to withdraw from the magnet programs they’ve qualified for because they no longer have access to the bus transportation within walking distance from their homes and are unable to get to depot stops and/or arrange alternative transportation. Students pulled out of the magnet programs for this reason and who re-enroll in their home high school may experience a decrease in self-esteem, a desire to excel and most certainly the opportunity to thrive in an environment with other like-minded peers.
• Less time to complete rigorous homework requirements (many of which require access to specialized computer software students have access to only at home or on laptops students hesitate to bring back and forth to school for fear of theft or damage)
• Loss of sleep. Many students are now required to rise a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes earlier so parents can transport them to the depot stop in order to catch the bus to their magnet program. For some families, particularly those with students in two different magnet programs, the impact is even greater. These students are often up late completing rigorous homework requirements. Any degree of sleep deprivation results in a lack of attention, focus and ability to concentrate.
• Unrealized impact of increased applications to Harford Technical High School by students who would otherwise qualify for SMA, GS/IB or NR/AS magnet programs. Those who cannot arrange transportation to depot stop locations and/or the magnet school but will apply to specialized programs at Harford Tech, thereby reducing the likelihood that students who need to be on a “trade” track will be selected.
• Diversity of Magnet Programs in jeopardy. Current enrollment:
- SMA: 219 students (190 students, or 86%, reside out of the AHS attendance area)
- GS/IB: 182 students (88 students, or 48%, reside out of the EHS attendance area)
- NR/AS: 165 students (77 students, or 46%, reside out of the NHHS attendance area)
The student body in all of these magnet programs will most certainly change if the Transportation Policy is not returned to ensure students can be picked up and dropped off at a consolidated stop that is within walking distance from their homes.
• Buses arriving after homeroom begins, depriving students of time needed to calmly prepare for the day
• Negative impact to AHS, EHS, NHHS standardized test scores
• Potential impact to AP class availability and/or enrollment
3) Economic/Environmental Concerns
• Real cost per day per person = More than $53.45 with a cumulative economic impact for the 355 magnet program students impacted of $3,415,242 dollars. This figure takes into account
- Fuel expense
- Vehicle wear and tear
- Lost wages (arriving late and leaving early to transport student to and from school)
- Time spent commuting
This cost per day per person does not take into account additional costs to car insurance for either parents or students driving themselves or the additional CO2 Emissions generated, though these things are worthy of consideration as well.
• Impact to Sheriff’s Department resources
- Police involved when minors waiting at libraries are not picked up by parents before 5 p.m. closing on Fridays
- Unanticipated costs incurred (3 additional crossing guards, lighted arm bands
• Pay to Play fees incurred (Students who might not normally play a sport have signed up as a way to stay later at school). Add this to the cost of AP Exams (averaging $80 per exam, families of some students taking 5 AP classes incur an additional $400 expense)
• Loss of wages for high school students who have responsibly secured jobs but now arrive too late to reasonably work their required shift or who have babysitting jobs in the neighborhood caring for younger students or younger siblings.
4) Impact to the Family
• Divorced parents who may not live near one another required to transport students to and from same depot stop all year.
• Significant logistical challenges for families with children in two different magnet programs
• Child care issues (older siblings not available to watch younger children and in the case of 4th tier, limited child care available in impacted area)
• Increased family stress caused by this situation and resulting economic impact that trickles down to students and negatively impacts school success.
The harmful effects captured here are enormously impactful and are not sustainable. The Board’s decision to change the transportation policy without opportunity for public input and review prior to finalizing the decision sets a dangerous precedent. If the Board of Education is not held accountable and is unwilling to rescind this decision, students will continue to suffer. The imminent danger created by this policy change must be addressed. Failure to do so will most certainly yield tragic results. It is just a matter of time and we again urge the Board to rescind its decision now.