The Christmas holidays will give frustrated John Mahood PS parents a break from the traffic woes outside the Elmira school, but it seems unlikely Santa will deliver a solution to the longstanding parking problems. In fact, the winter will only make matters worse. Changes made at the neighbouring Gibson Park municipal lot to start the school year haven’t alleviated congestion, as some parents continue to ignore the rules as they rush to drop their children off. Woolwich Township officials recently upped the ante, calling on Waterloo Regional Police to step up their presence at the school during the morning rush period.
Traffic continues to be a sore spot for parents, the school board and the township.
Much of the problem centers on a very narrow window of opportunity for parents to drop off their kids at the school, causing cars to arrive all at once. Classes start at 9:10 a.m., but the administration insists no one step on school property before 8:55 a.m.
The resultant congestion and scramble is not unique to John Mahood, but it’s the only school in the area with the problem, notes the Waterloo Region District School Board trustee responsible for Woolwich and Wellesley townships.
“It’s not in every school, but it’s at many schools where there are issues with traffic flows and concerned residents nearby,” said Harold Paisley, explaining the restrictions on drop-off times relate to supervision terms set out in union contracts with the board’s teachers.
Acknowledging congestion could be eased by allowing kids to show up earlier, he said that remains a larger, board-wide matter.
The board had hoped for some relief when the township agreed to some new measures prior to the school year. In June, Woolwich council voted to close off access to a municipal parking lot adjacent to the tennis courts in order to direct drivers further west on First Street to a lot at Gibson Park, where a second entrance was built to help with traffic flow. Finding that arrangement inconvenient, however, many parents have continued to use prohibited areas closer to the school. Traffic and parked cars have also spilled over onto nearby residential streets, raising the ire of residents, who’ve not been shy about complaining to the township.
Stepped up enforcement by township bylaw officers has proven ineffective, as parents grow increasingly frustrated and ignore or berate the officers, noted Christine Broughton, Woolwich’s director of council and information services.
There have always been parking issues at John Mahood, but the mood of parents is worse than she’s ever seen it.
“There’s a lot of frustration. People are a lot less friendly about it.”
A growing student population and increase in the number of parents driving their kids to school have led to more safety concerns at the school. Traffic congestion and parked cars near the school were to blame for an incident last fall that saw a student cycling near the school struck by a car. While the child was not seriously injured, the accident drew attention to the problem at John Mahood.
Subsequent enforcement measures, including ticketing and speaking to parents, proved ineffective, as many of those dropping off their kids simply continue as usual.
“While some parents were highly appreciative of the township’s use of resources in trying to deal with the problem, enforcement staff have met with considerable resistance from other parents who argue or try to ignore the officers,” notes a staff report on the parking issues. “Many made negative comments and shared dismissive attitudes in front of the students. Some drivers consciously ignored the parking restrictions and quickly drove off when enforcement staff approached, adding to the unsafe conditions of the area.
Even the recent changes have done little to stem the tide, prompting a recent township request for increased police enforcement.
“The parents give the bylaw people a hard time when they try to explain the situation. That’s why we’re there – they tend to listen when it’s the police telling them,” said Sgt. Sig Peters, who heads the Elmira detachment of the Waterloo Regional Police.
Safety remains the top priority, but the township has also received complaints from residents near the school, and not only of First Street. Parking restrictions on other streets are inconveniencing those who see this as a school board problem, not one that should be addressed by the township. But because most of the parking space around the school is owned by the municipality, Woolwich does get dragged into the debate, Broughton noted.
In the longer term, the board will have to look at the supervision issue as well as specific improvements at John Mahood, Paisley acknowledges. In the meantime, he sees parents using the parking lot across the street at the Emmanuel Evangelical Missionary Church, which has made its lot available to the school – “that has really helped” – and trying to keep their cool, despite some lapses.
“The parents have been fairly patient,” he said. “If I was a parent there I would be frustrated too.”
For school principal Tracy Tait, the problem is an ongoing project, with parents realizing the measures are being taken for the sake of safety.
“The vast majority of parents say that the changes have made the walk for students much safer as they are no longer having to navigate through the cars in the tennis court parking lot,” she said Wednesday in an email. “Two parents have expressed concerns to me about the logistics of the Gibson Park parking lot and they have come with suggestions which I have passed on to the township.
“I realize that this is a work in progress, there are still some issues and it may take a few changes to get it right but on the whole the feedback has been positive. Most parents admit that while it might be less convenient for the adults, it is safer for the children.”
While admitting the Gibson Park lot is “not an ideal solution,” Paisley called on parents to make the best of the situation until a more workable solution is found. Having fewer parents driving their kids to school would be helpful, he added.
“The more you encourage kids to get there on their own two feet, the better it is,” he said, noting the board has a policy encouraging kids to walk, bike, board or blade to school, its active transportation charter.