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Pay for a bus ride? It's among board options

From changing school start times to shifting funds, the South Washington County School Board is weighing a number of student busing options to address a transportation department that is deficit spending.

Two board members said during a workshop last Thursday that they want a proposal to change District 833 school start times for the 2013-14 school year to begin this fall instead, to save money and end the leasing of five buses. Other proposals floated include charging fees to bus students in the district's "choice" programs.

The reasons for the drain on the transportation budget are across-the-board cost increases, including fuel, the leasing of 10 buses and the cost of busing kids in choice programs.

Also straining the budget is a change by the Legislature several years ago to stop funding for new buses, according to Superintendent Mark Porter.

The transportation department's budget reserves are dwindling because they have been tapped to balance the last three budgets, Porter said.

At the top of the list of partial solutions is shoring up the transportation budget with $150,000 from the general fund, but even that lacks strong support. Board member Ron Kath said he opposes it in theory but would reluctantly vote for it if the majority of the board is in favor.

Board members agreed with a plan to cut $100,000 from the transportation budget. Transportation Director Gary Dechaine said he doesn't plan to fill a vacant mechanic's job. Daily bus safety checks are now being done by drivers freeing up more time for mechanics. Also, the skill level of the mechanics is increasing, he said.

Also discussed is a proposal to impose fees to bus students in the elementary Spanish Immersion program, middle school Spanish Immersion, Gateway and Valley Crossing - choice programs with students who are not required by the state to be bused. That had the support of board members Kath and Jim Gelbmann, who are often on opposing sides of school issues, but other board members were hesitant.

The annual cost of busing a student in a choice program is about $600, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations. That is twice the amount to bus kids in traditional school, because choice students are bused from throughout the district.

Fees, from $150 to $250 per student with a family maximum of $500, would not cover the cost but would reduce spending by approximately $150,000, Vogel said.

The impact on program participation is not known, according to Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education, but parents could be surveyed, he said.

Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd said fees would hurt families who don't qualify for but are close to the income threshold for free or reduced-price lunches, the federal benchmark for poverty.

Board members said they favor increasing walking distances in secondary schools by one-half mile. That would result in a one-and-a-half mile walk for middle schoolers and two miles for high school students, the minimum distance required by the state. At one mile, walking distance would not change for elementary students.

The board also considered a recommendation not endorsed by administrators to offer bus service for a fee for secondary students living within the new walking boundaries.

It's been a "nightmare" for other districts that have offered it, Vogel said.

During a discussion about changing school start times to end the need for leased buses, board member Marsha Adou said more creative solutions are needed such as keeping kids who are bused at school for up to an additional hour until buses arrive.

Kath, who said he's not seen hard evidence that changing high school start times to 8:35 a.m. benefits education, asked why changing those start times aren't being considered.

Porter said the district is part of a University of Minnesota study, with results to be released soon, on the positive benefits for teens.

Adou said high school students are doing much better because of the time change.

Kath and board member Tracy Brunnette favor changing elementary school start times this fall.

People are not going to be happy, Brunnette said, but the board needs to make the best decision it can for the district.

"We know what we're going to hear," she said of public reaction.

Boyd responded: "We're forcing this on families."

Vogel said the district is coping with fuel costs by participating in a state contract that locks in a price for year for half the fuel with the remainder bought at market rate. Since the contract price is has been consistently 20 percent below market rate, the district is now contracting for 67 percent.

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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