Balance sought between safety as top priority, curbing costs
By Ted Schnell • BocaJump | Saturday, April 7, 2012
The Elgin Police Department and Elgin School District U-46 are winding down their evaluation of school crossings and have thinned the ranks of manned crossings by about 15.
Elgin police Cmdr. Glenn Theriault said Friday that by the end of this school year, about half of the city’s 35 manned school crossings will have been removed. A few more will be modified over the course of the summer in preparation for the start of the next school year.
“Safety, safety, safety — it’s all about safety for the kids — that’s the No. 1 priority in all of this,” he said. “Secondary, and a far secondary, is the cost of it.”
But cost is a concern, and the department hopes to save as much as $200,000 a year with the changes. The annual budget for the crossing guard program has been about $280,000 and included 38 crossing guards. By the end of the school year, 15 of those guards no longer will be active on a daily basis; instead, they will be on call to fill in if someone is ill or to man special events, such as Fox Trot of the city’s July Fourth parade.
The Elgin Police Department identified the crossing guard program as among those that had not been audited for some time. The department contacted U-46 for its help in evaluating the program.
The new year sparked one immediate change, even before the evaluation of the various crossings began in earnest. In January, the department cut crossing guards’ work hours by 25 percent to reflect actual hours being worked. Theriault explained that guards were being paid to work four hours when their actual workload was just three hours, sometimes less.
In past, lacked criteria to evaluate crossings
Until this year, he said, the city had not had any objective criteria to use in evaluating school crossings. Consequently, crossing guards sometimes were assigned to intersections after a complaint was made without evaluating the basis for the complaint.
“Any time we got a complaint about (the desire for) crossing guards, it was, ‘Oh, let’s just put a crossing guard there.’ But that did not really address the problem,” Theriault said.
“Everything before this audit was an emotional, subjective decision about where we needed crossing guards,” he said. “There was really no sound analysis …” of whether a crossing guard at an intersection was a legitimate safety need, whether the request for one was in response to an isolated incident, or what was the safest way to get the children across the street. In some instances, he said, that meant crossing guards were assigned to intersections that did not really warrant one.
U-46 provides basis for evaluations
Enter School District U-46 safety coordinator John Heiderscheidt with a formula for establishing the need for crossing guards, including a gap analysis study for evaluating some crossings.
“He’s been my counterpart in this whole process,” Theriault said. “We are working hand in hand to provide safety for kids. U-46 is assisting us, the city is assisting U-46. We’re going to get this right by working collaboratively, together. And it’s been a good relationship.”
The gap analysis, is applied to roadways where, instead of a continuous, steady stream of traffic, there is traffic that may be heavy but has gaps. On such streets, he said, the gaps in traffic are timed and then plugged into a formula that includes street width and, based upon that, the amount of time a child needs to cross the street safely. That meant sending someone out to crossings with a stopwatch to gauge the gaps in traffic. Other factors have to be considered as well, he said.
“When we did this audit, we ended up with a lot of intersections that needed change,” he said. “There were some, up on Spring Street, that warranted crossing guards — back when Sherman Hospital was there and we had thousands of car trips a day of employees, and ambulances, and traffic to the hospital.
“Well, you take the sole business (Sherman), really, in that neighborhood out of there, which had such a huge presence, and you don’t really need the crossing guards,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Theriault said there has been a crossing at Liberty and Jay streets where guards have been struck by vehicles twice over the years. In that situation, he said, the police department brought that intersection to the school district’s attention as a candidate for busing — meaning children living on the far side of that intersection might qualify for a school bus route. “It did, now that one will be bused” in the near future, and the school crossing will be eliminated.
Other intersections did not really need crossing guards because they had traffic signals, including pedestrian crossing signals.
Sheridan Elementary School is making use of a sixth-grade safety patrol. The students don’t act as crossing guards — stepping out with a stop sign to halt traffic, for example — but they let the other children known when it’s safe to walk across the street.Theriault said there was a transition period for each crossing change that included consultation with each school’s principal, meeting with parents when desired, providing children with printed instructions for themselves and their parents, and monitoring the crossing by a guard and a police officer to ensure children understood how to cross safely.