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Willow Lane Elementary is hot topic in East Penn transportation study

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 12 2013 06:04:10 AM CST
Willow Lane Elementary School

Willow Lane Elementary School

EMMAUS, Pa. -

A transportation study for East Penn School District– which includes planned safety improvements and two options for reducing bus service at Willow Lane Elementary School – was released to the school board Monday night by Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger.

Several parents of Willow Lane students again expressed their anger and frustration -- both that the district continues to move ahead with plans to make more elementary children walk to school next year, possibly from homes as much as 1.5 miles away, and because parents have not been able to participate in the decision-making process.

“I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated that no parent input has been sought into any of those recommendations,” said parent Susan Coenen after the meeting. “When is the dialogue going to begin? I still am awaiting an answer to that question.”

Parent Jonathan Berger asked what happened to the idea of a committee involving parents that was promised by the administration late last year. And parent John Jansen complained basic transportation information he has been trying to get from the district “is either not available or is not being provided.”

The “comprehensive” transportation study, which Seidenberger said will be posted on East Penn’s website Tuesday, looks at the entire district -- not just Willow Lane.

For example, the superintendent said he will be talking to officials at St. Ann Catholic School and Seven Generations Charter School, both in Emmaus, about proposals to consolidate and reduce bus service to those schools.

The administration also proposes finding out how many Emmaus High students do not intend to ride under-utilized school buses next year.

Seidenberger said 48-passenger buses serving the high school are only half full and the district can save at least $34,000 by eliminating two buses.

He indicated a similar approach will be taken at Willow Lane, because buses serving that school also are not full.

Seidenberger said a transportation survey of Willow Lane parents will be redone. He explained a previous survey is invalid because 44 of 201 people filled out duplicate surveys. He said the new survey will ask parents if they want to be involved in the process.

When she addressed the board at the beginning of the meeting Coenen said: “I have been speaking at you since Dec. 3. And I mean ‘at’, because this is not a dialogue.”

She said the district should have a meeting with all parents of children attending Willow Lane because transportation is a school-wide issue.

Parent Jill Ahne told the board: “It does not seem we can trust the school board to make decisions that are in the best interest of the safety of our children.” She said the board seems determined to reduce busing “no matter how many parents keep coming to the meetings and share their concerns with you.”

Ahne asked the board not reduce busing until all safety improvements have been completed at the school by both Lower Macungie Township and the school district.

“Traffic will be horrendous, with hundreds of cars coming in and out,” warned parent Donna Jurado, adding children walking to school will not be safe from all those cars. “Busing is the best option for the safety of the children.”

Board member Julian Stolz made a motion that the school district should continue funding busing in the 2013-14 school year to all Willow Lane students now receiving bus transportation. His motion was defeated 6-3. Only Lynn Donches and Michael Policano voted with Stolz.

Board president Charles Ballard called Stolz’s motion “narrow-minded” and “a pandering attempt to attain votes”—which generated unhappy groans in the audience.

Stolz said the board should act in the best interest of parents and students, “not simply rubber-stamping the administration’s agenda, which is all certain members of this board seem interested in doing.”

Like some parents who spoke, Stolz maintained all planned safety improvements at Willow Lane will not be made by the time the new school year starts Aug. 22. He said all improvements should be in place before the districts cuts busing for anybody. He said his motion was in the best interest of the safety of Willow Lane students.

But Ken Bacher, who voted against Stolz’s motion, said East Penn did not start busing fewer Willow Lane students at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year because the administration was not ready to put a plan in place. “I believe they will do the same this year if they don’t believe we’re ready,” he said.

Bacher also “doesn’t like the idea of singling out specific parts of our population for special treatment.”

As evidence East Penn does listen to parents, the superintendent offered the school board two options for Willow Lane – ending busing for children living within 1.5 miles of the school or ending it for those living within three-quarters of a mile.

“In fairness to students in other schools,” his report recommends the .75-mile distance also should be extended to Alburtis, Jefferson and Lincoln elementary schools.

He said not busing Willow Lane students who live within 1.5 miles of the school will save East Penn $111,761 a year, not the $60,000 a year previously reported by the district. If East Penn pays half the cost of seven crossing guards planned around the school, the savings will be $102,206 a year.

If the district does not bus students living within three-quarters of a mile from Willow Lane, East Penn would save $54,059 next year. The superintendent said 125 children would walk to the school.

Seidenberger said more than 92 percent of Willow Lane’s total students ride the bus – 681 out of 739. He said 458 of those 681 children live within 1.5 miles of the school and indicated that 341 of those 458 kids live within three-quarters of a mile from the school.

Even though 92 percent of Willow Lane students are bused, about 134 vehicles drop kids off at the school every day. “A lot of parents aren’t using the buses,” said Seidenberger. He said the Willow Lane buses are less than 61 percent full in the morning and less than 70 percent full in the afternoon.

He said nine buses serve Willow Lane and that might be reduced by one by learning from parents how many children do not intend to take the bus.

Seidenberger said East Penn proposes doing three things to improve traffic flow at Willow Lane:
• Instead of parents dropping off students at the main entrance, they
will do so at the back of the school, off Mill Creek Road.
• Buses will continue to drop off students in front of the school, but
will have wider turning areas.
• And a gate will be erected to prevent parents from using a shared
driveway with the township fire station.

The superintendent recommended the board approve those improvements whether or not East Penn buses fewer children in the next school year: “We just think it’s the right thing to do.”

Seidenberger put the cost of those improvements at $89,356, with an additional $9,200 for some alternates. He said the money would be drawn from the district’s capital reserve funds, with no impact on East Penn’s operating budget.

He said Lower Macungie Township is close to finalizing plans to add flashing signals, crosswalks and crossing guards at Willow Lane.

He mentioned the possibility of sharing costs for crossing guards with the township. He said two crossing guards will be posted at the intersection of Willow and Sauerkraut lanes and one at Willow Lane and Wheatland Drive.

Seidenberger said public schools in Pennsylvania are not required to transport students, adding the only exceptions are charter school students and those with individualized education plans.

He said East Penn gets reimbursed by the state for children transported at least 1.5 miles to school but not for those who live less than 1.5 miles away – unless they live along a state-designated hazardous road.

He said the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ranks only one road around Willow Lane Elementary as hazardous: a short “sliver” of Willow Lane that has four homes along it.

The administration’s transportation study includes seven recommendations for the school board’s consideration. Ballard praised the administration for what the first comprehensive transportation study he’s ever seen in his 18 years on the school board.

Seidenberger said East Penn is spending more than $5.32 million for transportation this year. The district uses 132 vehicles on 481 routes every day.