NAPT News & Views: Let 'em walk?

Barry McCahill and Mike Martin
Posted on August 1, 2008

The presidential candidates are not talking about it. Major media outlets are still mostly ignoring it. But it’s occurring in every community coast to coast: Local officials are trying to figure out how to keep school buses on the road when fuel costs are about double the money they budgeted.

What is being reported ad nauseum is the mom standing at the gas pump complaining about how $4 gas is slamming her economically, and interest groups cheerleading as SUV and light truck sales collapse and auto companies post record losses.

But there’s a related story that’s not getting told: What fuel prices are doing to pupil transportation, which 25 million American children and their families depend on every day. If gas prices are breaking the bank now for average families, what happens when the need to drive kids to and from school is added to the daily grind?

Flustered local officials are up against a wall and threatening to park buses and/or reduce service. In fairness, most believe they face only unpleasant options. “They’ll just have to walk” usually is offered as the solution de jour, as it is suggested cavalierly that those within a mile or so of school would be just fine switching from a yellow bus to the soles of their sneakers.

But is cutting service the only option? Yes, if we do nothing and accept the status quo of government that invariably takes the course of least resistance, otherwise known as the choice of least political pain.

It’s easier to say, “We’re out of money,” rather than, “This is important enough that we need to get the money from somewhere else.” That’s because in the budget turf wars in every city and town across the land, the “somewhere else” will fight mightily not to give up a penny.

In fairness, as an industry we set ourselves up for these simplistic responses to the sudden fuel cost crisis, having mostly touted just our exemplary safety and reliability record that’s now taken for granted to the point of not being newsworthy. But the mostly forgotten word in pupil transportation — convenience — is about to rear its head for the first time. And as Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing!”

As the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Try convincing a mom in Wenatchee, Wash., for example, that her gradeschoolers will be fine hoofing it to school when the temperature outside is zero — with wind chill making it colder. How does she tell her boss that she’ll need to arrive at work later and leave earlier because the family car is now the school bus?

Want to park buses? Want to make more kids walk? If so, be prepared to deal with some very angry and inconvenienced parents.

Suddenly, that toasty yellow bus that showed up every day almost miraculously is looking like exactly what it is: one of the best bargains ever conceived, a convenience and necessity all in one and, unlike many government programs, one that works not just well, but very well.

Recently in Montgomery County, Md., the budget-strapped school superintendent got the local school board to give him permission, if needed, to change its policy to make students walk farther to schools. In the first such editorial we’ve seen in a major newspaper, The Washington Post recently questioned this “Let ’em walk” option by daring to propose an option that would be suicidal for politicians. The paper suggested that teachers consider taking a lower-percentage pay raise so there will be enough funding to keep buses running.

Get ready for World War III to break out in Montgomery County!

Said the Post, “Why is it acceptable to float the idea of a longer hike for a third-grader, and increase the burden on taxpayers, but not to ask a teacher to consider a raise of 6 percent rather than 8 percent? Instead of talking about longer walks or bigger class sizes or supplemental budgets, school officials should exercise the common sense any householder would use in eliminating luxuries that have become unaffordable.”

The Post got it right, correctly asking why kids should bear the burden for local budget woes, reasoning that yellow school buses and schools enjoy a symbiotic relationship, a chain that, once broken, would have serious safety, educational and lifestyle consequences.

For many years, while local government coffers were full and fuel was cheap, pupil transportation was taken for granted and relegated to the bottom of the educational budget barrel. It’s time for it to be the priority it must be.

We can only hope other newspapers and media outlets around the country soon put out the same message rather than merely covering budget meetings where parking buses and kids walking to school longer distances are the only solutions on the table.

We feel the pain of local officials and bus operators who are our colleagues. It’s not their fault that successive Congresses have turned a blind eye to our energy dependence. It’s not their fault that developing countries have increased dramatically their demand for oil, crimping international supplies and triggering a price spike with no end in sight. And it’s not their fault that we have no coherent national strategy to drill for available domestic supplies and increase refining capacity while also jump-starting the development of viable alternative fuels.

When the rug gets pulled out from under you, all you can do is try to break the fall. School bus operators are doing all they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. More pain is probably coming. But because, as the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local,” it’s time we all speak up about the realities we face and offer solutions that will keep running the best transit system ever conceived.

We can lead and instigate solutions collaboratively within our communities, or we can merely be the recipients of the “Let ’em walk — park them buses” knee jerk that will occur otherwise.

Ironically, at the very time when every community is thinking seriously about instituting or expanding mass transit options as a way to ease the pain of gas prices, on the chopping block getting minced is the largest, safest and most reliable transit system ever devised — the yellow school bus.

We are an American institution that busy families depend on every day to connect where they reside with where their children attend school. Faced with numbing gas prices, traffic congestion, concerns about air quality and educational priorities on the radar screens in every city and town, officials should be thinking of ways to get more children on buses — including teenagers, who typically drive themselves or ride with friends — rather than sidelining that which makes a huge contribution to addressing every single one of those top priorities.

“Let ’em walk” should not be the answer, and it won’t be if we are engaged and committed. Our attitude must be that we are part of the solution to high fuel prices and energy dependence, not part of the problem.

And we all must start telling this story immediately.

Barry McCahill is president of McCahill Communications Inc., a strategic advisor to NAPT. Mike Martin is NAPT’s executive director.


NAPT announces Conference and Trade Show details

ALBANY, N.Y. — More details have been released about the 34th Annual NAPT Conference and Trade Show, which will be held in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Oct. 26-30.

Attendees will have the opportunity to listen to professional and motivational speakers during the five-day event, including Dr. Cal LeMon, president of Executive Enrichment Inc., and Jon Gordon, an author and human performance consultant.

The conference will also include more than 50 workshops on topics such as management, alternative fuels, transporting students with special needs, bullying prevention and internal auditing.

The two-day trade show will feature products and services from more than 140 manufacturers and suppliers.

For more information on the event, visit the NAPT Website,, or call (800) 989-NAPT.


Related Topics: budget cuts

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