While most U.S. military schools are supported by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), some may be part of the public school system, such as Fort Belvoir Elementary School in Virginia, about 20 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. This elementary school is owned, managed, staffed and supported by Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) even though it is located on a military base, said Transportation Director Linda Farbry.
“The staff is entirely FCPS staff, not military. Maintenance is handled by FCPS and post home-to-school transportation is FCPS,” said Farbry, who added that this arrangement has been in place for the 30 years she has worked at the school district. She has headed the transportation department for 13.
Because Fort Belvoir Elementary is situated on land inside base owned by the federal government, it is subject to the same access rules as every other part of the post, Farbry explained. “Access” is a term with many meanings in her world.
“We have always provided service for children who live on the post to get to elementary school on the post,” she continued, “Some of them are in special programs, whether special needs or AP (advanced placement), and those with hearing problems we have to take to the center of the county. We also transport to middle schools and high schools off the post.”
Student transportation is “heavily special ed” because the nation’s Capitol has excellent military hospitals. Likewise, FCPS has superb special ed programs, said Farbry, which makes it an ideal place to send students with severe impairments.
“It kind of makes it a challenging responsibility for us,” she shared. “And you’ve got the families with children who are subject to having one parent out of the country on a regular basis. It requires a lot of our people to work on the post. There are many special considerations.”
Farbry noted that recent federal budget “sequester” cuts resulted in fewer entrance gates to Fort Belvoir, which means her bus drivers have to drive farther out of the way to access another gate. The post is divided into north and south, and the elementary school is located in the north post, which is smaller.
“We go into the south post in most cases and go over a dedicated bridge to get onto the north post. There are a lot of time issues,” she said. “The difficulty we have is it that can take a long time to get through the check-in. Ordinarily, they are on Code Orange, and they have to check in our buses. On another alert, they have to get armed soldiers on buses to check them out and see if the driver and kids on board are all legitimate. It takes time.”
Before/After Care Busing Change
Another busing challenge at Fort Belvoir Elementary School attracted media attention in August, but was outside of Farbry’s purview. For years, Fort Belvoir’s Child, Youth and School Services (CYSS) provided a courtesy transportation system to convey preschool students from the School Age Services’ Before/After Care program on post to school off post, and back again.
Yet, in July, CYSS announced it could no longer provide transportation to off-post schools due to new Army guidance. Don Dees, a spokesperson for Fort Belvoir, told STN that changes to the transportation plan came in response to the discovery of an inappropriate use of funding.
“The transportation provided by CYSS was not in accordance with DoD directives — therefore, we had to stop doing it,” he explained. “In response to that change, some industrious family members got together to create a shuttle system for those unable to drive their children from before-school care. We have before and after care at many of our facilities. The school provides a certain amount of transportation but does not provide it in the morning.”
This is where military mom LaToya Caldwell stepped in. She created the SAS Buddy Program, which is run by a handful of Fort Belvoir military spouses who drive children to and from off-post schools and the Markham School Age Center on post for before and after-school care. In total, more than 70 children were affected by the change, Caldwell told the Belvoir Eagle.
To qualify, parent drivers must submit to a background check and provide a driving record. Parents pay the driver $75 per child each month, and drivers pay for their own gas.
Dees clarified that sequestration did not affect the change in transportation at Fort Belvoir, as it is not a DoDEA school.
He added that the SAS Buddy Program is “a fine example of what military families do to meet a need.”