Ten parents appealed to the East Penn School Board Monday night to do more to protect their children from fast-moving traffic around Willow Lane Elementary School.
Parents are concerned because East Penn’s administration proposes no longer busing children who live within 1.5 miles of Willow Lane when the next school year begins.
The school, which opened in 2010, is near the intersection of Sauerkraut and Willow lanes in Lower Macungie Township, Lehigh Co.
Parents advised school board members two or three accidents happened at that intersection just since mid-December. “It’s clearly not a safe intersection,” said Jonathan Berger. “I want to make sure we have the children’s safety as the number one priority.”
Resident Matthew Mull said a dozen times in the last month he deliberately ran routes children will follow to go to school “at the same time these kids will be walking” and indicated he had two close calls with cars when crossing Sauerkraut’s intersections with Willow and Mill Creek Road. “There just seems to be an inherent danger,” said Mull.
Saying some residents call Sauerkraut Lane the Sauerkraut Superhighway, resident Tammy Ritter told the board: “I know of no other students in the district who are being asked to walk along a stretch of road where cars travel at high speeds unchecked by stop signs.”
Parents said East Penn is expecting too much from children in kindergarten through fifth grades to safely walk up to 1.5 miles to school. One recommended it would be more realistic to have children walk no more than three-quarters of a mile.
Some predicted more parents will drive children to or from school, putting more cars on roads where other children will walk and creating more danger, because many of those parents will be hurrying to get to work.
Resident Melissa Huffer said she lives 1.3 miles from the school. She said two of her children attend Willow Lane now and the third will start in 2014. She said she would have to walk 7.8 miles a day to get them all to and from school – 39 miles a week.
She said it would be unrealistic to spend that much time out of her work day, adding the district could force her to quit a job she loves.
Todd Salomon said his three children will be put at risk by the proposed plan to reduce busing. If Willow Lane was planned as a walking school, he asked, why hasn’t East Penn been up in arms about a lack of signage since August 2010? He said parents had to plead with the school board for more than a year “just to get this discussion going.”
Currently, 90 percent of Willow Lane’s 725 students are bused to and from school, according to the school district, and only three percent walk or ride bicycles.
To save $60,000 a year in transportation costs, it proposes reducing that to 55 percent next fall, by no longer busing children who live within 1.5 miles. It projects 25 percent of students will be dropped off and picked up by parents and 20 percent will walk or ride bicycles.
The district intends to have children who live in the following residential developments walk to school next fall: Beaumont at Brookside, Brandywine Village, Brandywine Village II, Brookside Farms and Graymoor. Dr. Thomas Seidenberger, East Penn’s superintendent, said more than 30 children already are walking from Brandywine II, adding: “Those homes are right behind the school.”
School board member Julian Stolz proposed a motion that the board instruct the administration to include continued funding to provide busing in the 2013-14 school year for all Willow Lane Elementary School students who currently are receiving district transportation.
As Stolz anticipated, board president Charles Ballard ruled his last-minute motion improper but promised to put it on the agenda for the next board meeting, which will be Jan. 28.
“If the board says provide transportation, we’ll happily provide transportation,” said Seidenberger.
The issue may not be conclusively resolved until the school board passes a final 2013-14 budget in June, a budget that may or may not include funds to continue busing most of Willow Lane’s students.
Seidenberger said East Penn is reviewing all aspects of transportation to see where money can be saved, not just focusing on Willow Lane Elementary. “We are looking at every bus route,” he said, adding parents at some other schools may be unhappy with transportation changes that will be proposed by the district.
“There’s an issue of fairness here,” said Seidenberger after the meeting. He said if most Willow Lane students continue to be bused, parents of children attending Alburtis, Lincoln and Jefferson elementary schools could say: “Treat my kids the way you are treating the others.”
Seidenberger said students living within 1.5 miles of Alburtis Elementary, as well as Lincoln and Jefferson in Emmaus, also are not bused. He indicated roads are more dangerous around Macungie, Shoemaker and Wescosville elementary schools, adding: “We don’t have neighborhoods around those schools.”
Seidenberger said Willow Lane’s students initially were bused because the school still wasn’t quite ready for them to walk and might not have gotten a certificate of occupancy when it opened. He indicated the busing has continued longer than it should have, and accepted responsibility for that, but said parents had been warned it would not continue.
The superintendent said parents have been asked to complete a “Willow Lane Transportation Survey,” which is posted on the school’s website, before Jan. 22.
Results of a Willow Lane Elementary School Walkability Audit – called Safe Routes to School Infrastructure Plan --- also are on the website.
One parent, Tammy Ritter, expressed concern about a lack of follow-through regarding that study’s recommendations. “We’re in the third year at Willow Lane and we still don’t have school zone signs,” she said.
Lower Macungie apparently will pay for school zone signs, but other recommendations in that study, such as improving crosswalks, have not yet been addressed. Ritter said those improvements will require time and money. “Will these upgrades be completed or will they be forgotten and ignored? Who will pay for them? Where’s the timeline for when the work will be completed?” She indicated those issues must be addressed before Willow Lane students are expected to walk to and from school.
Seidenberger said administrators have kept track of issues raised by Willow Lane parents, not only Monday night, but also at the Nov. 27 and Dec. 10 school board meetings. He promised parents “we will continue to listen and to refine these plans.”
He stressed many issues raised by parents –including adding signs and crosswalks -- are the responsibility of Lower Macungie Township, not the school district. “We’re trying to work with parents on issues that we can control,” said the superintendent.
Seidenberger said district officials had a “productive” meeting about improvements needed at the school on Friday with Lower Macungie officials. He expressed optimism the township will add an additional crosswalk, which will have a crossing guard. He said no final decision has been made yet about who will pay for crossing guards, “which technically are the responsibility of the township.”
He said district and township officials will meet again in three or four weeks and eventually may issue a joint statement regarding their progress. He also said the township and district “will speak with one voice” on the issue, so residents hear the same information whether they go to a township meeting or a school board meeting.
Seidenberger also said a small advisory committee will be organized with parent representatives from each Willow Lane neighborhood. Dr. Anthony Moyer, the school’s principal, will head that committee.
“There are only three or four issues relative to the operation of Willow Lane School,” said Seidenberger, again explaining the district can’t control issues that are the township’s responsibility.
After the meeting, Susan Coenen, one of several parents who regularly attend meetings of both the school board and Lower Macungie commissioners to press for Willow Lane Elementary safety improvements, said she “is optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction.” She’s glad the school district and the township are communicating about the issue. “We just have to continue to stress the importance of the safety of the kids.”
Coenen said not all parents want all the children to continue to be bused, only that “we find the safest, most cost-effective way to get our children to school.” She said developing that plan involves research, planning and input from parents.
“Even though I have busing, there are days I walk my kids to school,” she said. “Do we run across Willow Lane for fear of getting run down? Yes. For me personally, it’s not about losing busing. It’s about if I walk my children to school, can I cross Willow Lane safely to get them there?”