Weather Forecast


Consensus still elusive for District 833 transportation issues

The District 833 School Board members are set to make a decision this week on school start and end times for next year, but after a recent workshop they still had not reached a consensus on a new start time plan or on whether to charge bus fees for the district's choice programs and extend walking distances for secondary students.

They agreed, however, to take a separate vote on each proposal when they meet Thursday, May 24, to put together a plan to balance the district's transportation budget and end the use of reserve funds to erase deficits.

Superintendent Mark Porter said another part of the budget-balancing proposal - cutting $100,000 from the transportation budget by not filling a mechanic's position and making other reductions - should be taken off the list because board members have agreed to support it.

The board also supports increasing the general fund contribution to the transportation budget by $150,000, so that will also come off the list as well, Porter said at the board's Thursday, May 17, workshop.

Board member Jim Gelbmann commended the transportation department for managing to keep costs down because expenses, mostly for fuel, have increased by nearly 300 percent since 1997.

"We've squeezed every bit that we can from transportation," he said.

But if the board doesn't support at least some of the remaining proposals, money spent to keep current start times, walking distance and busing will ultimately from classroom instruction, Gelbmann said.

A month ago, board members appeared to favor changing school start times for 14 elementary schools and private schools for a savings of $480,000. They rejected a proposal to start middle school 20 minutes earlier at 7:30 a.m., which would have saved $323,000 without changing elementary school and private school start times.

But after hearing from upset parents and private-school leaders at a meeting last month, and through a district online survey, board members are reconsidering putting that middle school option back on the table.

Board member Tracy Brunnette, who supports extending walking distances one-half mile for middle and high schools and a 7:30 a.m. middle school start, said the board must take action soon so changes can be implemented this fall.

Gelbmann would support an earlier middle school start but not if walking distances are extended. He's concerned about kids walking in the dark in the winter.

Since the start is earlier, maybe parents could drive their students to school on the way to work, Brunnette said.

If the walking distance stays at one mile for middle school students, the savings drops from $261,000 to $40,000, according to a transportation report.

Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd, who said she is "hesitant" to support changing middle school start times, wants the district to consider using an outside contractor for busing.

Boyd also had concerns about busing for the district's choice programs. Though the fee schedule to continue busing students to Spanish immersion, Gateway and Valley Crossing has been revised to include a sliding fee scale used to pay for all-day kindergarten and pre-school programs, the numbers "are squishy," Boyd said, and might not reflect actual participation.

Using a sliding scale would drop the projected savings of $144,000 by $22,700, according to the transportation report.

The district hired a consultant to look at bus schedules when it implemented the current schedule, Porter said, and the district incorporated his conclusions.

Boyd said she wants to see the consultant's report and look at other possibilities.

The issue of charging a fee for choice programs is not about the income level but whether the district should be charging for busing, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities. There is no charge for busing to all-day kindergarten, for example, which is a program parents choose. Vogel wondered how fee-for-service would apply to one program and not another.

Board member Ron Kath said that even though the law states public school districts must provide busing for private school students at no charge, some parents of kids in District 833 choice programs question the fairness of charging a fee for one and not the other, he said.

Over the years, the district has looked at all the options, Gelbmann said, including outside contractors for busing. There is a "huge savings" in the first two years because buses are sold, he said, but after that districts are "at the mercy of contractors." Districts that switched to a contracted service now regret it, he said.

The option to move some or all bus operations to a more central location in Woodbury have been considered, he said, but current zoning wouldn't allow it. It would also duplicate administrative costs.

When all costs are included, the cost of in-house bus route is slightly less than contract buses, said Gary Dechaine, transportation director.

"I don't disagree," Boyd said, but the contract data is 10 years old. "I need some hard facts."

Board members struggled to find consensus during their workshop.

"We're getting nowhere, fast," Gelbmann said.

Vogel asked board members what level of private contracting they would be looking for. It could include just contracted drivers, drivers and buses, administration, or administration and routing.

Brunnette asked if changing high school times one hour later made an actual difference in learning over the past couple of years.

There is no savings to changing high school times again, Porter said. A report is due soon on the effect of the high school start time comparing district data to that of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kath said he still wants to explore picking up kids at all grade levels in one neighborhood as rural districts do.

Traffic is congested now at the Woodbury Elementary School and Woodbury Middle School campus, Porter said, even with different start and end times.

"I'm not saying it's a good idea," Kath said.

The board is scheduled to take up the transportation issue at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 24, at the District Service Center.

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.
(651) 459-7600