- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

School officials in Maryland and Virginia may start asking more students to walk to school to help hold down costs after a dramatic increase in fuel costs for school buses.

School systems from Loudoun County in Virginia to Montgomery County in Maryland have been forced to budget millions more for fuel needed during the upcoming school year. Lawmakers in both counties have been looking at the possibility of extending the walk-to-school zone to cut back on some busing.

“Everyone’s thinking of how to save energy,” said Supervisor Sarah R. “Sally” Kurtz, Loudoun Democrat. “I think it’s a grand idea.”

The Loudoun school district’s current policy provides busing for elementary students who live more than four-fifths of a mile from their schools. Students in sixth grade and above are eligible for busing if they live more than a mile from school.

There are exceptions, though, for children who would have to cross a major road or a dangerous area to get to school. Officials say safety remains the top priority.

Naomi Lithgow-Foidl, an aide to Ms. Kurtz, cited statistics from a U.S. Department of Transportation survey that show 51 percent of students who live within a mile of school get there by car. Less than a third of them walk. About 14 percent of the students are bused to school and the rest use a bicycle, according to the survey.

“Walkable schools aren’t going to work for every school,” she said. “There’s just so many benefits to [students’] walking, if it’s possible.”

In June, the Montgomery County school board voted to give administrators emergency powers to extend the walking zone if rising prices make it fiscally necessary. Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has said higher fuel costs could force a decision between scaling back services and cutting textbooks or teachers. School officials have asked the County Council for an additional $5.3 million for fuel costs after initially budgeting $7.9 million for the new year.

Other schools in the region are struggling with rising fuel prices, reflecting a national trend.

For example, the District’s school system spent about $600,000 more than it had planned on fuel in the last school year.

And in Prince George’s County, public schools have budgeted $9.3 million for fuel in the coming year after budgeting $7.5 million last year. John White, a spokesman for the county’s schools, said officials have made budget cuts in administrative areas to cover the increased fuel costs while avoiding cuts in the classroom.

School systems also are strictly enforcing a rule that buses should not idle for more than three minutes.

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