It’s harder than it should be to help students walk to school, said Leisa Glantz, whose child goes to Lead Mine Elementary.
Her school is in North Raleigh, where traffic caused by freshly sprouted neighborhoods makes it dangerous for students to cross Old Lead Mine Road to get to school, Glantz said. The Wake County school district doesn’t install crosswalks or hire crossing guards, so principals and parents can’t simply make a call up the organizational ladder. They can’t take matters into their own hands, either.
“Staff used to stand in that crosswalk and walk out with that flag when kids and parents wanted to cross,” said Glantz, the Lead Mine Elementary PTA president. “That’s no longer happening because it’s a safety issue. Someone was hit about four years ago.”
In Raleigh, like most of Wake, requests for crosswalks and crossing guards must go to elected leaders or the police department. So Lead Mine Elementary is asking the City Council to fund a second crossing guard at the school.
Raleigh leaders are not only considering Lead Mine’s request. Some with the city want to take it a step further and evaluate how crosswalks and crossing guards are appropriated.
“We share a responsibility for getting kids safely to school. Who pays for it? That’s an excellent question,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.
County school systems aren’t required by state law to provide bus services to families that reside within 1.5 miles of the school. But council members Kay Crowder and Bonner Gaylord say the Wake school district and, by extension, county government should help the city pay for crossing guards because they share the responsibility of ensuring that children can safely walk to school.
I appreciate the need and want children to feel safe in a city where there’s increasing traffic, but I’m not sure I believe it needs to be a city function. It really needs to be a county function.
Kay Crowder, Raleigh City Council member
“I appreciate the need and want children to feel safe in a city where there’s increasing traffic, but I’m not sure I believe it needs to be a city function. It really needs to be a county function,” Crowder said.
Added Gaylord, “We should at least be sharing that cost.”
It’s unclear how many Wake students walk to school, because the district doesn’t collect that data.
Raleigh budgets about $322,000 a year for 44 crossing guards to work at 38 elementary schools, some of which have multiple guards. The crossing guards are part-time employees that are paid $10.59 an hour – a rate that rises to $11.09 an hour after one year of experience.
Crossing guards work 1.5 to 4.5 hours a day, depending on how many locations they’re assigned.
In most cases where a guard is approved, the city also installs a crosswalk, which cost $2,700 apiece.
Cary has a special group within its police department responsible for traffic around schools. Cary pays about $180,000 a year to have crossing guards at 15 locations around 11 schools.
In Raleigh, the crossing guard program has been controversial since 2009, when the city implemented a point system for evaluating roads to determine whether they qualified for a guard.
The program considered the average daily vehicular traffic on the streets, speed limits and the number of walkers. If a street earned more than 100 points, the city paid for a crosswalk and sent a crossing guard.
Some council members said the criteria was too rigid, while others thought it was the best way to ensure that the city responds to each guard request fairly. A former council member, Randy Stagner, accused some council members of corruption in 2014 after they said they wanted to install a guard at a school that didn’t meet the school’s criteria.
The city modified its evaluation system in 2015, the same year it added 21 crossing guards at a cost of $140,700. Lead Mine is the first school to request a guard since then, said Jim Sughrue, spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department.
The North Raleigh school already has a crossing guard, but he directs traffic at the mouth of a neighborhood about a quarter-mile south of campus. But some students come from the other direction and try to cross the street where there is no crossing guard.
“Families have to navigate that crosswalk with no assistance,” Sarah Burton, whose daughter is a first-grader at Lead Mine, told the City Council on Jan. 3.
Her representative on the City Council, Dickie Thompson, said he’ll lobby his peers to fund another guard.
“I believe they do need one. There’s a lot of new residential construction, plus people speed on Old Lead Mine. So we may even need to reduce the speed,” Thompson said.
There’s no set meeting or date for Raleigh to decide on Lead Mine’s request or to review its crossing guard policy. Council members are expected to discuss both as they craft the next city budget, which will go into effect in July.
Health and planning advocates say they hope Raleigh’s discussion blossoms into a broader discussion between Wake’s government, school board and various municipalities.
“One overall policy we’d like all cities to have is a Complete Streets policy, which is really a transportation planning policy to design and update roads so they can be used safely by pedestrians, cyclists and transit – as well as automobiles,” said Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County. Raleigh is the only Wake municipality with such a policy, she said.
“We know that academic achievement goes up and behavior issues go down when kids are physically active, so walking or biking to school where possible benefits the schools’ core mission,” said Sara Merz, executive director of Advocates for Health In Action.
However, county and school district leaders are hesitant to take a position about sharing the cost of crossing guards with municipalities. Christine Kushner, who represents Raleigh on the Wake school board, pointed out that her group gets its annual budget from Wake’s Board of Commissioners.
“It’s an interesting question. I don’t know how to answer it yet,” she said.
Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the commissioners, said he’d be open to talking about it.
“Anything we can do to support biking and walking to school is a very positive thing,” he said.