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Parents urge School District 834 to reconsider busing changes

About 35 parents packed into the meeting room at District 834 Central Services April 30 to protest proposed shifts in start times at five local schools next fall.

Most who spoke during a two-hour "transportation talk" complained the proposed changes would disrupt their schedules, cost them money for childcare, put their children at risk and yield negligible benefits.

Under the proposal, start and end times next year would shift between 25 and 70 minutes from current schedules at Andersen and Lily Lake elementary schools, St. Croix Preparatory Academy charter school, and Salem Lutheran and St. Croix Catholic parochial schools. Further, students at Stillwater Area High School, the charter school and the parochial schools would not receive bus service unless they register for it.

Dennis Bloom, the district's operations director, said the proposal is the result of months of work and represents the best bus schedule he and transportation planner Nikki Nelson could muster.

By spreading out school start times and requiring registrations for service, Bloom said, the district could use fewer buses more frequently. Potentially five to eight bus routes could be cut from the district's current 63-bus-per-day schedule, yielding estimated reductions of $189,000 to $300,000 from the district's $5 million transportation budget.

The district has never before allowed parents to opt out of bus service. Under state law, a public school district must provide transportation to all school-aged children who live within its geographic borders. Further, it receives a portion of its transportation budget from the state for doing so.

The District 834 Board of Education is expected to vote on the proposal May 14.

Many parents expressed doubts about the cost savings, which Bloom admitted are only estimates before the district gets actual rider numbers this fall.

"It just seems so disruptive to a lot of people to base it on something we don't know," said one mother of two Andersen Elementary School students who didn't give her name. She said she and her husband, who both work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., would have to spend an additional $300 to $400 each month on day care to compensate for the school's time shift.

"I'm not convinced that what you've shown here is proven savings the district is going to realize." The woman, who said she works in finance, urged school board members to "dig in" to the cost-savings estimate and "really hold people accountable for delivering it."

Another mother of an Andersen student said the change could cost her another $44 per week. Under the current schedule, she drops her child off at school on her way to work and pays about $14 for two afternoons per week supervision through the district's Adventure Club.

Under the change, she said, she would be forced to drop him off a half hour before school and pay for five mornings in its Adventure Club each week.

"You're going to be making money on buses, making money on Adventure Club, everything is going up," she said. "But working families, we're trying to survive, too."

Parents from affected non-district schools also expressed concerns.

Lori Olson, whose children attend Salem Lutheran School, commended Bloom for his hard work and praised the registration plan as an excellent idea for saving money. However, she urged the district to first determine the savings from reduced bus ridership before it changes school start-and-end times.

"Let's get a letter out before school ends, and then see if that works," she said. "I bet you it will save money."

Other parents complained the changes could force small children to board the bus before 7 a.m., or not return home until after 5 p.m.

Paul Loomis, the father of a kindergartener at St. Croix Catholic School, said the hour-and-10 minute advance in his child's schedule -- from a 9 a.m. start to 7:45 a.m. -- would severely limit family time at his household.

"Elementary school kids are supposed to be getting 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night," he said. "That means, with working families, they get home and they get to see their kids for maybe 30 to 60 minutes a day because they have to be up at 6 a.m."

Rick Hill, the father of a St. Croix Preparatory Academy fifth-grader, said a proposed 3:50 p.m. end time will make participating in after-school sports difficult, whether those sports are sponsored through District 834, or later through the charter school -- which he said would have trouble finding schools to compete against so late in the day.

"It's so obvious that the St. Croix Prep athletic program is going to be decimated," Hill said.

Currently, the school's junior-high students can participate in District 834 sports; however, older students are barred by Minnesota State High School League rules from playing on the district's high-school teams.

Others questioned why the charter school's start time is scheduled so late, when other comparably sized schools would start early in the day. Bloom said that school's planned move from Stillwater to a new K-12 facility in Baytown Township places it too far away from the city to be scheduled in with in-town buses.

Several parents worried that placing students of different ages and from different schools on the same buses could put children in danger. Over audible grumbles from the audience, Bloom said that high-school students "kind of take the younger kids under their wing" and that bullying is not a problem.

Nelson, the district's transportation router, said that in her four years as a bus driver, such concerns were never an issue.

"It was amazing to me how well behaved the younger students were if there were 10, 11, 12th graders there," she said. "There is a respect level within the kids, from the same school, not from the same school. They respect the older kids."

"Well, I rode a country route with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade, and the things I heard of on the bus, I would never want my 7- and 10-year-old to see," responded a mother who didn't identify herself. "And that was 30 some years ago."

Dave Noack, principal at Salem Lutheran School, said he appreciates the logistical challenges District 834 faces in planning its busing, but lamented that the hour-and-10-minute delay in start- and end-times at his school will hurt attendance.

"We'll definitely lose kids," he said, adding that more than 90 percent of the school's 155 students ride the bus each day.

Ridership at District 834 schools ranges from about 20 percent to 60 percent at elementary schools, about 55 percent for junior highs and about 30 percent at the high school, according to information Bloom provided after the meeting.

A survey of Salem parents reported 56 "opposed" to the change, 23 "neutral" and four "for" it, Noack said.

"There's no question, with this economy and parents already paying tuition to attend, to have this much change will have a big effect," he said.

After the meeting, board member Scott Papke acknowledged the frustration that he said the parents who attended the meeting must feel. But he emphasized that they aren't the first parents, and won't be the last parents, to deal with what he considers a normal part life with public schools.

"What many of them don't understand it that this has happened before in this district," he said. "People always complain about it upsetting their schedules, but we all have had to make changes in our routines.

"We just have to think of the big picture and get over it."

District 834 proposed school time changes

• at Andersen Elementary, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (currently 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)

• at Lily Lake Elementary, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (currently 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)

• at Salem Lutheran, 7:50 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. (currently 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.)

• at St. Croix Catholic, 7:50 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. (currently 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.)

• at St. Croix Preparatory Academy, 9:15 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. (currently 8:50 a.m. to 3:25 p.m.)

For further details about the proposal, go to the district's Web page at stillwater. Changes.html