Howard County parents press school system to return bus service to thousands of students

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HOWARD COUNTY, Md. (WBFF) — Howard County families are in a race against time to stop their own school system from cutting bus service to thousands of students.

The district expects students, some as young as kindergarten, to walk more than a mile to school. But many parents are pushing back.

On the fourth of July, many of those families marched in a Howard County parade chanting, “save our school buses” and “keep our kids safe.”

The effort is being fought across many fronts, and all of them will converge Thursday at the Howard County School Board meeting.

Sean Happel is the parent of three Howard County elementary students. He joined the movement to get back school buses for 3,500 Howard County students who were told the district was cutting their bus service.

“We have safety concerns. We have equity concerns. We have just a breadth of concerns that show that the policy hasn’t been fully thought out,” said Happel.

For the upcoming school year, Howard County Schools increased the distance students must live from their school to qualify for bus service. For Pre-K students, middle schoolers, and high schoolers, the distance was increased by half a mile.

The school system, which according to the most recent data, is located in Maryland’s wealthiest county, will not interview with Fox45 News. But said in a statement the intent is to ensure the “efficient use of transportation”, primarily because start times for the next school year were changed.

Project Baltimore, last month, spoke with families from an Elkridge neighborhood who were told their elementary school-aged children would be expected to walk to school next year.

Project Baltimore walked the route with them. It was more than a mile, along roads with no sidewalks and limited visibility.

“It was a blind hill,” explained one parent. “You can’t see anything as you’re going down. That’s the definition of a blind hill.”

Since Project Baltimore first told that neighborhood’s story, many more have joined the cause. An online petition demanding answers from the school system was created in mid-June. In just a few weeks, it gathered nearly 1,400 signatures. Another online petition was started in late June, calling on the school board to reverse course and return bus service. That petition has more than 1,300 signatures.

“We’re asking them just to pause for one year, just for one year to get community engagement, to try and make sure that they’re considering all aspects before they make such an impactful change to the county,” said Happel.

Happel’s contribution is to make flyers, which are passed out during events, including the Fourth of July parade.

Local business owners are also getting involved.

“They don’t have to lose their bus,” said Jared Defibaugh, who owns a bus company that’s been driving Howard County students for more than 50 years.

Defibaugh said if the district would work with him and other contractors to hash out wages and routes, the 3,500 students could get their buses back.

“It’s frustrating to me to know that we have the tools to fix it, but it’s not getting done,” Defibaugh told Project Baltimore.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball has even weighed in.

“I think our parents and our families have a right to be concerned and even frustrated,” Ball told Project Baltimore in June. “I’m hopeful that our school system, our Board of Education, is going to look and work with our parents, work with our communities to ensure that our kids can get to school safely and create that best teaching and learning environment.”

On Thursday, July 13, the Howard County School Board will hold a meeting, which many parents believe will be their last chance to get buses back. Their summer of planning and fighting is devoted to just one night, with a result that’s out of their control.

“There needs to be a change before the school year starts,” Happel told Project Baltimore. “Please listen to us.”

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