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Having kids walk to school is a good step

Voters in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District last week had a message for schoolchildren: If you live close enough, you should walk to school.

I suspect that some had an additional message for their parents: Let them.

The vote last Tuesday calls for the end of district-provided bus service for elementary school students who live closer than a half-mile from the school they attend; for middle school students who live closer than 1.5 miles; and for high school students who live closer than 1.8 miles. The reason is money, the same reason that almost every school board in the state is making hard choices this spring.

It would be easy to chalk up the 80 percent majority in favor of the change to the usual bromide that taxpayers have had enough and will jump at any chance to cut public spending.

Maybe it also was a vote for common sense.

With a tax cap in place and districts facing multimillion-dollar budget gaps, the idea that bus service should be provided for every elementary school child -- even one who lives 100 feet from the school's front door -- is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Besides, Ken-Ton is one of the few districts in Western New York where the majority of students can walk to school in safety. The Town of Tonawanda was built with the pedestrian in mind, giving students there an opportunity that many of their contemporaries in other sidewalk-challenged communities will never have.

Of course, distance and sidewalks are not the only things keeping kids from exercising their legs on school days. A bigger obstacle might be their parents' belief that it's more dangerous for their kids now than when they were in school.

I don't buy the argument. The truth is, thanks to our needy pal the 24-hour cable news cycle, we hear about far more incidents of child abuse and endangerment than we did a generation or three ago, so we have become more scared. With the same sensible advice given to "walkers" in an earlier age -- Don't talk to strangers; Look both ways when you cross the street; etc. -- kids today will be just as safe as their ancestors were in the 1960s and '70s.

Even if you don't believe that, School Superintendent Mark Mondanaro said this doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition for worried parents. He is encouraging them to check out the website

The premise of the site and the movement that it has spawned is that if parents are afraid to let their children walk to school, then parents should figure out a way to walk to school with their children and any other kids in the neighborhood who might need adult supervision.

"If that sounds simple, it is, and that's part of the beauty of the walking school bus," the website says. "It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school to as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers."

In addition to the health benefits of walking and the financial benefits that could be derived either from the lower cost of bus service or less gasoline used to drive the kids in the family vehicle, a program such as this also could help neighbors get to know one another and create a better sense of community.

"I think in our community we do have lots of parents who could -- if they communicated with each other -- do a little more in this regard than they may realize," Mondanaro said.

Doing more by getting kids off the bus and onto the sidewalk isn't going to make them healthy or solve the financial problems of our schools, but it's a start.

And long journeys often start with a small step.