Howard County’s school bus fiasco exemplifies a decline of services for county residents due to funding gaps and questionable budget management.

At a recent meeting, Superintendent Michael J. Martirano said that for years, the school system had some 90 bus driver vacancies consistently unfilled. What the public witnessed since the first day of school is the consequence of the failure to address this accumulated vacancy burden.

But the school system does not allocate the school budget. It starts from the county executive’s office.

County Executive Calvin Ball, who has served in county government as either a County Council member or as county executive for more than 18 years, has suggested that the school bus mess is not the fault of the county administration because “the County fully funded the Board of Education’s transportation budget request for this school year with an $8.2 million increase over last year,” he said in a statement.

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I don’t agree. While the county executive and school system’s budget transactions are typically framed as the county administration fulfilling the school system’s “budget request,” the school system does not request more than the county has already decided to provide.

The school system can and should do better in managing the allocated budget, but what we are witnessing is the consequence of accumulated decline due to large budget gaps. And these budget gaps are due to decades of terrible zoning and land-use decisions.

What makes matters worse is that this bus fiasco occurred during the first school year when the school system began to implement later school start times. It is worth noting that school start times have been long debated in the county. The community advocated for, and finally succeeded in getting, a school board agreement on modest changes to reflect scientific recommendations on addressing optimal start times for better educational outcomes.

It appears, however, that implementation of later school start times and the bus fiasco were not a coincidence.

In conjunction with the proposed later school start times, the school board and school system decided to pursue a no-cost/low-cost plan to address these bus driver shortages. School officials tied the later school start times with the decision to address the persistent vacancies. In a memorandum dated July 7, 2023, responding to Board of Education questions, the superintendent said “changes to reduce the non-transportation areas identified in Policy 5200 would require the reversal of the Board’s decision to change school start times and I do not recommend that action.” Further he said, “as we have experienced a driver shortage of between 85-95 drivers for several years, it would not be possible to make a change successfully that would require any more routes than the 478 being planned.”

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Martirano stated in an August 10 memo to the Board of Education that the best way for the school system to address the bus driver shortage was to eliminate the vacancies, reduce the number of bus routes and expand the walk zones significantly, thereby eliminating bus service for some 3,500 students.

Accordingly, the school system engaged a consultant to address all these issues. Inexplicably, the other major aspect of the “solution” was to pay more for fewer routes to a contractor called Zūm, which describes its services as helping school districts improve transportation operations and customer experience.

For months, community advocates warned of the dire consequences of these decisions. The public did not understand why it made sense to pay more per route. Without quantifying the benefits, the school system indicated that the contract with Zūm included other ancillary benefits. Also, the school system and the superintendent touted Zūm’s contribution to clean energy through a carbon offsetting program.

The public also warned of resulting traffic congestion due to the expanded walk zones affecting the 3,500 students. Since the start of the school year, children living two miles away from the school were asked to walk, and many parents have chosen to drive their kids. Parents are rightfully concerned about their children’s safety.

While school start times were adjusted to heed pediatrician recommendations, the 3,500 kids would not benefit from this adjustment. It is still unclear why the school system tied the change in start times to bus driver shortages.

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All of this is tied to funding. Lack of money led to 90 vacancies being unfilled annually for years. If the county had allocated more money to the transportation budget, the school system could attract more bus drivers. This bus driver deficit accumulated through the pandemic, which exacerbated this labor shortage. Lack of money led to some low- to no-cost proposals to reconcile later school start times with said vacancies. Lack of money led to expansion of walk zones.

Why do we have a lack of money in Howard County? It occurred due to years of intentional, terrible zoning and land-use decisions that depleted the county budget. Since 2004, while counties such as Montgomery County were charging substantial school impact fees, Howard County’s school impact fees were significantly less. This policy alone has resulted in deferrals of hundreds of millions of dollars over 20 years that could have gone to the school system to address pressing capital projects, thereby freeing the county’s general fund for other important priorities, such as addressing the accumulating bus driver shortage.

Another detrimental zoning and land-use decision relates to the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. For years, Howard County’s APFO law required minimal mitigation standards to prevent school overcrowding. The result was schools at nearly 145% of capacity, nearly 240 school trailers and more than $1 billion dollars in deferred maintenance. While the APFO law was amended in 2018 to strengthen the capacity standards, we still have schools at 120% of capacity and continue to grapple with staggering numbers of school trailers as well as deferred maintenance.

These are just two examples of large major land-use decisions that have debilitated the county’s budget and contributed to decline in level of service.

What are we as a community willing to do to ensure our children do not bear the brunt of these poor decisions? The County Council is poised to advance a general plan with very little consideration for school infrastructure. It’s a plan that provides benefits to developers while increasing the budget gap and further exacerbating the declining quality of schools.

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When will we call on our elected officials at the County Council and the county executive to stop squandering taxpayer dollars?

Hiruy Hadgu is president of Progressive Democrats of Howard County.

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