Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

1/3 of the story isn't the full story: crossing guard pay and walk to school programs

Crossing guard pay headline cover image, Washington Examiner, 10/19/2010
The Examiner writes a pretty narrow story today concerning school crossing guards, making it out as if the crossing guards are making a mint of money at the public expense. See "Being a Montgomery County crossing guard has its benefits - $40 per hour."

It's a surprisingly complicated issue.

In the last post, I discussed police departments and pedestrian and accident analysis, but I didn't get into the details about some of my learnings about the issue. What I used to say was that "police officers aren't planners, and that's not their fault, but they do need our help."

Because they don't know they aren't planners, without awareness of the need to bring planners and transportation engineers into the equation when it comes to accident analysis and countermeasure selection, that area of expertise tends to not be part of the analytical system and approach towards traffic safety improvement. (Of course, this is an area where guidance from the FHWA in terms of the national traffic safety program and how it could be restructured would be very helpful.)

There is a similar issue with crossing guards. The way it works, crossing guards are paid for and managed by police departments, not the local school system. (This should change, but that's another issue too.) When the police department can't fill the crossing guard position--which is usually the case in most places because the hourly wage is low and the hours are short so most jurisdictions never have enough crossing guards--they are forced to have the shift covered by sworn police officers. While this has some benefits, for the most part, it takes police officers away from other service duties.

So the Examiner article doesn't discuss this, and how, by paying higher wages, Montgomery County is able to fill most of its crossing guard positions and they don't have to use police officers for unfilled shifts.

That isn't the case in Baltimore County.

At one of the planning advisory committee meetings, we were discussing walk to school efforts and how to expand the number of schools promoting and the number of students participating in walk to school efforts, and the police department representative present at the meeting interjected, and explained to us "the problem" from "their perspective," not ours.

This is from the draft plan that I submitted, although the final text in the posted draft may differ slightly:

The plan advisory committee learned that one of the barriers to expanding walk to school efforts concerns the supply of available crossing guards. School crossing guards are managed by the Police Department, not by the School District. Funds to pay school crossing guards come from the Police Department budget. Because it is part-time work (10 hours/week) for relatively low wages, the Department has a difficult time keeping the 273 required positions filled. For each empty position, sworn police officers fill in, diverting officers from patrol and other duties. The Police Department ends up in the position of discouraging walk to school efforts, because it can’t meet current demand for crossing guards let alone additional demand generated by new walk to school efforts, which would mean that even more police officers are needed to cover school crossing guard functions.

(In Baltimore County, they pay under $15/hour.) The Police Department ends up in the position of discouraging walk to school efforts, because it can’t meet current demand for crossing guards let alone additional demand generated by new walk to school efforts, which would mean that even more police officers are needed to cover school crossing guard functions.

I am using the word "discourage" nicely. They actually tell principals to convert walk to school areas to school bus service zones, in order to reduce the demands on the sworn police officers.

This was the related recommendation in my draft (which was excised from the posted draft):

Address the issue of school crossing guard pay and other incentive programs that will strengthen retention of school crossing guards to reduce demands on other Police Department personnel for school crossing guard coverage. Ensure that when additional crossing guard positions are required, funding is provided to cover the increased cost.

We found this out because, unlike in most bicycle and pedestrian planning efforts, I reached out to the police department and got the traffic safety and traffic enforcement divisions to participate in our planning advisory committee. Plus the accident analysis section of the Crime Analysis section of the police department's research division provided us data that we asked for with regard to pedestrian and bicycle accidents across the planning area (actually they provided it for the entire county, but I was tasked with a planning effort for only 1/2 of the urban area of the county, about 110 square miles). Some planning efforts get and analyze this information, many do not.

I am surprised that Baltimore County has demands for more crossing guards than Montgomery County (177 according to the Examiner article) and Fairfax County (64 according to the Examiner article). But it is a big school district (110,000 students), just as Montgomery County (130,000 students) and Fairfax County (175,000 students) are large, but Baltimore County is physically larger than either county (Baltimore County is about 640 square miles).

But I imagine that the Baltimore County Police Department wishes they could pay what Montgomery County is paying. They kept asking for more money to address the issue, but it kept getting denied, and they are always in the position of never having enough crossing guards, and constantly directing police officer details from other duties to serve as crossing guards.

The issue comes down to walking to school vs. being bused to school. Higher wages for crossing guards ensures the success of walk to school programs. Sure this comes at a cost. It means you don't have to buy and operate as many school buses, find school bus drivers (another problem comparable to the problem of finding and retaining school crossing guards), or buy as much diesel fuel.

A new school bus costs about $75,000. Diesel fuel costs close to $3.00/gallon. For a variety of reasons, it makes more financial, health, and transportation sense to direct resources to walk to school programs rather than busing students to school.

In an odd way, the Examiner article, by not telling the whole story, is advocating for buying school buses and diesel fuel and for school bus drivers rather than crossing guards. It's as if they are on the take from a school bus manufacturing company...

And it's very disconcerting that Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich accepts the narrative of the story as stated, rather than digging more deeply into the story. From the article:

Of the millions of dollars devoted to crossing guards, 45 percent of the funding is for group insurance plans.

"Wow, that's incredible," Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large, said upon learning of the ratio. "If everything is on the table -- as we have been saying with our budget problems -- this certainly has to be in the discussion."

Police say they hire the "most qualified" people for the positions, but current crossing guards admit that job placement is mostly tied to personal connections.

Yes, the how the people get the jobs issue needs to be addressed if it isn't an open and fair process, but in most respects, the issue shouldn't be how much people are paid. It's either that or the school bus and police officer details. The amount of money spent wouldn't necessarily be reduced, if anything, it would increase.


-Helping Johnny Walk to School (report)

-National Center for Safe Routes to School

-The Safe Routes to School National Partnership

- The State of Washington guide, School Walk and Bike Routes: A Guide for Planning and Improving Walk and Bike to School Options for Students

- White House Task Force on Child Obesity

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