Controversy Over Proposed Fees for Magnet Buses

by Ted Jou '99

On November 27, 2010, Silverchips reported that the Maryland Senate and House delegation from Montgomery County was considering a bill proposed by State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington, which would have repealed a 1997 law that prohibited fees for school bus transportation in Montgomery County. If passed, the bill would have opened the door to allow the Montgomery County Board of Education to charge students a fee for riding school buses to magnet, immersion and other programs. After a public outcry, and some legal advice from the Maryland Attorney General's office, Sen. Madaleno withdrew the bill on December 2, 2010.

Neither the Board of Education nor Sen. Madaleno ever proposed an amount for the bus fee, and Madaleno claimed that the bill was merely "opening the door for a discussion." Both he and Patricia O'Neil, the Chairman of the Board of Education, had spoken in favor of the bill as a way to provide flexibility in the County budget. O'Neil argued that charging bus fees would be a favorable alternative to cutting the buses entirely. Last year, as an option among broad budget cuts, the Board of Education had considered eliminating all magnet buses but decided not to implement those cuts after an outcry from parents and students, including many from the Blair magnet.

The recent debate over bus fees revisits a controversy that arose more than a decade ago. The reason that the Board of Education cannot impose a fee on school buses is because these fees were explicitly prohibited by a 1997 law passed by the Maryland General Assembly. The General Assembly at that time was acting in reaction to a proposal by the Montgomery County Board of Education to charge bus fees similar to the ones being discussed today. In 1996, the Board of Education initially proposed to charge $50/year to all students for bus transportation, and the County Council later proposed to charge $165/year to magnet students. After a public outcry, the Board of Education ultimately did not adopt any bus fees, instead imposing fees for extracurricular activities and night school. To prevent any future bus fees, however, Montgomery County's representatives in Annapolis passed a law, which states: "In Montgomery County, a fee may not be charged for transporting public school students to school from their designated bus stop locations or from school to their designated bus stop locations."

Madaleno's bill sought to repeal that law, but the Maryland Attorney General advised Madaleno that simply repealing the 1997 law would not necessarily give the Board of Education the power to impose bus fees on magnet students. The Maryland Attorney General's opinion was that other sections of state law, which require that students be provided a free public education, would prohibit any school board in Maryland from charging fees for bus transportation. It appears that the 1997 law may have been superfluous, although it certainly provides extra protection for Montgomery County students.

The proposals to charge fees for magnet buses are thus on hold for now, and the buses will run free for at least another year. But with the county budget likely to be tight again, proposals to charge fees or to cut Magnet buses altogether will likely be on the table again in the near future.