For over 20 years, the children at Spring Gardens Apartments walked to a bus stop near the rental office and waited to be picked up for school. Parents felt safe leaving their children there because they knew that the landlady, Jeri Yates, would be watching over them.
This past summer, Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools Department of Transportation, decided to change that route so that students were picked up at the Gum Springs Community Center. It was a short distance away, but parents were not happy with the change.
The issue first came up at last month’s forum with Dr. Jack Dale, superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools. DeSheral Roy asked Dale why the bus stop had been changed. At the meeting, Dale said that they don’t have enough bus drivers and were trying to balance safety with efficiency but that they would look into the matter further.
Dan Storck, Fairfax County School Board member, followed up with Roy and held a meeting at the Gum Springs Community Center. At that meeting, Storck listened to the arguments and felt that it warranted a second meeting with officials from Fairfax County Public School’s transportation department.
THAT SECOND MEETING was held this past week, and included Storck, Tistadt, Linda Farbry, director, Office of Transportation Services and Maddie Palmore, local magistrate at the police department and long-time resident of Gum Springs community. About 50 people crowded a meeting room at Gum Springs Community Center and brought forth their concerns.
The sentiment of “I don’t want my children over there,” seemed to sum it up for all the participants. “Over there” is the Gum Springs Community Center, which is adjacent to the Spring Gardens Apartments complex. To get there, children have to walk around their complex, through the connecting fence and across the parking lot. Audience members talked about how that same fence is locked at night because they don’t want children coming over from the center. They were concerned that their children had to walk through broken glass and drug paraphernalia. Parents were also concerned that there was noone to watch over them once they got to the new bus stop.
After listening to arguments for a half hour or so, Tistadt spoke. He acknowledged that they should have discussed this change with the community before making it.
“We had a few problems with not communicating effectively about the changes,” Tistadt said. “You are justified about getting upset. It’s not fair to parents and citizens not to know what’s going on.”
And with that, he proceeded to explain why they made the change — how they don’t like to put buses into apartment complexes because they’re more likely to have accidents and it takes more time; how it takes a long time for the bus to exit onto Route 1; and how there is a risk of the bus being exposed as it makes the turn onto Route 1.”
A few of the audience members interrupted as he spoke saying, “Nobody in transportation seems to care about us.”
THERE WAS DISCUSSION back and forth about having a crossing guard help the bus maneuver onto Route 1, but Tistadt didn’t think that was practical. Roy said that she’s seen crossing guards stop traffic in other areas. A former bus driver who used to drive that route said that she never had a problem.
More issues surfaced as people said, “I find it unfair for our children to come over here. When I leave home now, I have to worry about my daughter walking to the gym [Gum Springs].”
The turning point came when Yates looked at Tistadt, and said, “If I lock the gate, what will you do?”
“I would have no choice,” Tistadt said, and after mulling it over, he said that he had made his decision, and said, “I’m going to move the bus back where it was.”
Later Tistadt commented on his decision, “I was persuaded that the negative consequences of moving the bus stop outweighed the positive consequences of not having the school bus exiting directly onto Route 1 without the benefit of a traffic light. We still strongly prefer not to have the school bus exit this community onto Route 1 as it requires a significant break in traffic in 2-3 lanes. With increases in traffic volume, waiting for such traffic breaks is increasing the time required to exit. The bus while exiting is vulnerable to a side impact from traffic entering Route 1 from side roads immediately adjacent to this community. For these reasons, we moved the bus stop. Community members brought to our attention several negative consequences of the new bus stop that had not been fully considered by us. After listening to community members, we made the decision to move the bus stop back to its original location.”
Roy was pleased and said, “I think he [Tistadt] realized how we all look out for each other. He thought it was funny the way our landlady watches the kids. But that’s how it is — it somebody sees our kids doing something they let us know.”
Storck applauded the decision by saying, “The Spring Gardens community organized and made a strong case for keeping their school bus stop where it was. Tistadt listened and responded. I am very pleased that Mr. Tistadt, additionally, is initiating new efforts to reach out to the community better prior to making future bus stop changes.”