SALISBURY – Officials in Wicomico County last week agreed to send a letter of support for proposed legislation that could improve student transportation.
Last week, representatives from Wicomico County Public Schools (WCPS) came before the Wicomico County Council seeking support for proposed state legislation permitting alternative modes of student transportation.
According to the Code of Maryland Regulations, often referred to as COMAR, school systems can utilize two types of vehicles – school buses and taxicabs – to transport students to or from school or school-related activities. While a school system can seek a waiver from the state superintendent to use alternative vehicles, that approval does not permit transportation to and from school.
Desmond Hughes, transportation services director for WCPS, told the council last week that those regulations were incongruous with federal mandates.
“It’s a very antiquated law,” he said. “It’s just not kept up with the federal mandates imposed upon us.”
Hughes noted the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act states homeless children must be provided transportation to and from school, allowing students to attend their school of origin regardless of where they sleep at night.
“If the child lays their head in our county, we have a shared obligation of getting that child to their school of origin,” he said.
To that end, the school system is responsible for transporting students in and out of the county on a daily basis.
“Currently, we have 378 homeless requests for the school year, 43 of those are students who are temporarily residing in this county and we’re having to get them outside of the county, to Somerset County, Seaford school district, Indian River, Georgetown, and various other districts outside of the county, as well as transporting 39 of our students from outside of Wicomico County back into Wicomico County,” he said.
For the last five years, WCPS has requested a waiver from the Maryland State Department of Education to transport these displaced students using vans.
“It’s not always feasible, nor is it practical to be able to use the big school bus to get these students wherever they’ve got to go,” he said.
However, Hughes said the waiver does not allow these vans to deliver students directly to the school. Instead, students are dropped off at a bus stop in their attendance area.
“What we’ve been doing is skating around the law to try to be in compliance with the law,” he said. “This legislation would certainly clean up things for us.”
The proposed legislation would authorize a county board of education to provide transportation to and from school for certain students – namely homeless youth, children in foster care and students receiving special education services – using other vehicles when a school bus or taxi cab cannot reasonably be provided.
“This proposed legislation that Delegate [Carl] Anderton has in the works would allow us some flexibility in being able to provide transportation to our most vulnerable population,” he said.
Councilman Ernie Davis questioned if the school system was getting paid to transport students to other school districts. Hughes replied that there was no federal funding and that vans were purchased through the school system’s general fund.
“It’s a federal, unfunded mandate that we have to provide,” he said.
Hughes noted, however, that costs are often shared among school districts or reimbursed. He said many students are transported from Wicomico County to other school districts during the week because they are residing in homeless shelters.
“We have many more shelters within our county that the neighboring counties do not have,” he said.
Micah Stauffer, chief finance and operations officer for WCPS, said the goal of the legislation is to better provide for families in transition using transportation that is readily available.
“Hopefully this legislation will help so we don’t have to go and get a waiver from the state superintendent each and every year to make these things happen,” he said.
Following further discussion, the council agreed to send a letter in support of the proposed legislation.