SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Everyone from local advocates for health transportation to one-time Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been urging local school board members to reverse a policy prohibiting some students from biking to school.
They're getting the message.
Members of the Saratoga Springs school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to revise a policy forbidding elementary students and those who attend Maple Avenue Middle School on Route 9 from riding their bikes to school.
The new policy says students can ride on school property. where bikes were previously barred, but only after they have received permission from a parent or guardian, who must ride with them.
School officials must also pre-determine safe access routes to the location before biking is allowed, according to the policy.
The change came after Saratoga Springs resident Janette Kaddo-Marino and her 12-year-old son, Adam, a seventh-grader at Maple Avenue, rode about four miles to Maple Avenue school from their Jackson Street home as part of a bike-to-work celebration.
At the time, they were told they could not leave Adam's bike at the Greenfield school, and that they would have to return in a car. They later continued riding to the school despite being told not to by administrators.
The issue was later picked up by the national media, and by Gingrich, a Republican, who last week wrote the district urging a policy change as a way to encourage better health among students.
Kaddo-Marino, who has said the district's rule is an encroachment on parental rights, served on the committee that helped advise the district's new policy. But after seeing it in its final form at the school board's meeting, she wasn't pleased.
She and other critics said the revised rule still gives the district too much leverage in deciding whether students can ride to school, and is too vague about how quickly administrators should move to identify safe access routes.
"You're still involving yourself in an area that's not of your concern," Kaddo-Marino said, addressing board members after their vote.
Members of the Saratoga Healthy Transportation Network, which advocated for a change by citing statistics on the rise in obesity among young people and a decline in the number of students walking or biking to school, said they, too, were disappointed.
"This policy could possible work in theory, but it also provides a way out," said Caroline Stem, a member of the network.
School board members said they saw the new policy as a step in the right direction, and said prudence is paramount in considering the rule change.
"We may not match your timetable, but we are acting for the safety of the kids," school board member Aaron AuBuchon said.
Board members also said they hoped for more discussion on the issue.
"We at least now have some parameters looking forward," school board member Steve Grandin said. "This is not the final piece."
The 2007 National Survey of Children's Health showed that nearly 40 percent of children 10 to 17 in New York are overweight or obese and that only about 28 percent of those children participate in vigorous physical activity each day.
Meanwhile, about 18 percent of students who live within two miles of school walk or bike to school every day, according to the Center for Disease Control's latest statistics, compared with about 49 percent 50 years ago.
Gingrich, a Republican, chimed in last week, co-authoring a letter with a director at the Center for Health Transformation that urged board members to revise the policy.
"At a time when nearly one-third of American children and teens are overweight or on the brink of obesity, students like Adam who exhibit healthy behaviors should not be punished but rather rewarded," read the letter, co-authored by Laura Linn, the center's director for community networks.
Deb Hubsmith, the director Safe Routes to School National Partnership, also wrote the district urging they revoke the policy, and to create a task force that would actually encourage more walking and biking to school.
She said that the attention from Gingrich, as well as national news coverage of the debate, showed how far Saratoga's policy is from the mainstream, and how much interest there is in seeing how administrators respond.
"All eyes are on Saratoga," Hubsmith said.