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833 school start times stay the same for now

District 833 school start times won't change next school year, but they could change the following school year.

District officials learned soon after school started last fall that the transportation plan needed change when 30 buses were arriving five to 15 minutes late to elementary schools.

When the plan, reviewed by the school board at its April 8 workshop meeting, is implemented in the 2011-2012 school year, there could be changes in bus pickup and drop-off times, with middle school students beginning their day at 7:50 a.m. instead of 7:55 a.m.

Non-public school start times could also change, along with the district's policy on busing students who attend out-of-district private schools.

District Transportation Director Gary Dechaine acknowledged in October that the current transportation plan -- which was new last fall along with school start times and grade configurations -- did not allow enough time for buses to drop off middle school students and arrive on time at elementary schools. On some days, this caused a domino effect, with buses arriving late at high schools after taking elementary students home.

To reduce the number of late buses, the transportation department added 10 contract buses for elementary school routes only at a cost of $120,000 for the remainder of this year.

Meeting recently with bus drivers to discuss general district concerns, Superintendent Mark Porter said the stress level is high for those who drive all three routes for middle, elementary and high school students.

The district paid The Center for Efficient School Operations, a consulting firm, $5,000 to "provide a second set of eyes" to examine bus routing, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

Consultants recommended that the district no longer provide busing to out-of-district non-public schools because state law doesn't require it. Ending bus service to Hill Murray, Transfiguration and St. Elizabeth schools will affect about 600 students and six to seven bus routes, according to Dechaine.

State law does require the district to bus students to non-public schools within the district.

Routes for students in non-public schools within the district and Gateway and Spanish immersion students should be changed to be more efficient, consultants recommended.

Some changes, such as combining routes with low ridership, could come as early as next year. Bus rides will be longer, but changes will be "modest," said Dechaine.

The district will also begin talks with all of the non-public schools about changing start times to accommodate reconfigured bus routes. Some changes could come next year, but all would be implemented for the 2011-2012 school year.

"We want to engage schools in changes and begin the planning process," Porter said.

Dechaine said changing non-public schools' start times and routes could cut the existing 56 routes servicing private schools by half.

State law gives districts the authority to set non-public school start times, he said.

School Board member Jim Gelbmann suggested the district consider continuing out-of-district service for a fee.

Dechaine said out-of-district students could be bused to district middle schools if there is room on existing routes. They would then be bused out of the district by their home schools.

Board member Ron Kath said he is "not interested in subsidizing bus routes." Fees for the service would not cover district costs, he said.

Board member Marsha Adou said she is opposed to middle schools starting five minutes earlier. She said elementary start times should be changed instead, but there was no support from other board members.

"The consultants were clear," Porter said, "that the five-minute difference was substantial," in solving the late-bus problem.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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