Budgets may drive out crossing guards

The streets of downtown Clayton are relatively safe, but no more so than between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m. and 2:30 and 3:15 weekdays.

That’s when crossing guard Ben Ross is on the job, manning the crosswalk at Center and Oak Streets.

Don’t even try to speed or inch your way into the crosswalk – Ben’s loud, New York yell will have you quivering at your steering wheel.

This isn’t just a lark for Ross – it’s his job, and one he takes quite seriously.

“At nights they belong to their parents, and during the day they belong to their teachers, but when they are crossing the streets, they belong to me.”

Ross is Clayton’s one and only crossing guard, one of only a few paid by the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, and part of a dying breed, if other nearby cities are any indication.

Most cities in MDUSD have picked up the bill for crossing guards, but tight fiscal budgets are making that tougher to do. For the past four years, Walnut Creek City Council has put their funding of crossing guards on the chopping block, only to be saved at the last minute with desperate pleas from parents. Concord hasn’t been so lucky, electing do away with the $45,000 annual expense it pays to keep school crossing guards on the job, and replace them with volunteers trained by Concord Police officers.

It’s a tough decision, and one Concord Councilman Edi Birsan isn’t happy with.

“The policy of training locals is just in the first year of phase in,” he says. “My concern is that these sort of things have a high drop-out rate and I do not want us to wind up with schools without coverage.”

He says that he would like to keep the funds in the city budget, “at least till the whole thing is up and running for a year or two city-wide.”

Many of the Concord schools affected by the phasing out of paid crossing guards have taken matters into their own hands. At Ayers Elementary School, a parent volunteer took the helm and became trained by CPD, and in turn trained other parents. At Cambridge and Meadow Homes Elementary School, parents recently started a “Walking School Bus” program. Parent volunteers walk students in a formation that resembles a school bus along eight different routes to Meadow Homes Elementary.

In 2010, six people under the age of 16 were killed or injured while walking in Concord, according to the Office of Traffic Safety.

Still, any accident is one too many for Ross. “When I was growing up in New York, I saw a child dart into the street and killed by a coal truck,” he said. “It’s stuck with me ever since.”

Despite his gruff exterior, most of Ross’ “young goats” – as he calls the kids who cross on their way to and from school – adore him.

He has been known to stay until nightfall, without pay, if some kids are left playing at the foot of School Hill and parents are late in picking them up.

“I’m not going to let anyone be left alone,” he says.

Suddenly, some eager young boys go jogging across the street. “Hey!” Ross yells. “This is a crosswalk, not a cross-run.”

They immediately slow down, toss Ross a grin, and head home, slower – but safe.