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District 833 School board opts for 'Band-Aid approach' to transportation issues

Concerned about new school start times in School District 833? Don't be - for now.

Frustrated by the prospect of charging bus fees for choice academic programs? There's no need to be - yet.

Worried about kids walking up to two miles to school? It's not going to happen - for now.

After two months of intense discussion about planned busing and school start time changes, School Board members rejected controversial proposals and instead opted for a "Band-Aid approach" to fix a bleeding transportation budget while they look ahead to a longer-term cure next year.

The result of a series of votes Thursday, May 24, is that there will be no school start time change in 2012-13 for South Washington County Schools and area private schools. Also, students in the district's Spanish Immersion, Gateway and Valley Crossing programs will not be charged a fee to get a bus ride. The district won't expand its walking routes either.

Instead, the board voted to erase a projected $950,000 deficit in the transportation budget next year by shifting $150,000 and cutting transportation spending by $100,000. The rest of the deficit will be covered by using up the transportation department's $556,000 reserve fund and turning to the district's general fund for about $128,000. The general fund pays classroom and other basic operation expenses.

A majority of board members opposed two start time changes. One would bump up middle school times by 20 minutes to 7:35 a.m., saving the district about $322,000. The other option would change most school start times by up to nearly an hour, yielding nearly $480,000 in savings.

Both options failed on divided votes as some board members said that while they were not favorable those options provided the most savings to the district. Opponents opposed an earlier middle school start and major changes without more study.

The transportation budget faces a similar projected deficit for the following year.

Board member Jim Gelbmann, who supported both start time proposals in separate votes, said the same budget-balancing options will be back before the board. The public wants decisions instead of a year's delay.

"We've all seen what happens when elected bodies kick the can down the road," Gelbmann said. "We'll be back here next year talking about the same (start time changes) and probably some additional cuts or additional changes that won't be pretty."

The start time changes were a "Band-Aid approach" to solving the budget problem, board member Marsha Adou said.

Others said they wanted an additional year to further study the district's transportation system and possible ways to provide the mandatory busing but at less expense.

"I just think we need that time to do a more comprehensive look" at busing and route alternatives, board member Tracy Brunnette said.

Chairwoman Leslee Boyd said options have been suggested by the public but not vetted by the full board.

The decision pleased dozens of parents who showed at recent board meeting to oppose busing changes that could affect their school schedules. Most were parents of students at St. Ambrose Catholic School and New Life Academy, the two largest private schools in south Washington County.

Under state law, public school districts are required to provide busing to private school students without charging a fee. Private school parents have said they pay public school taxes in addition to their private-school tuition, and the district's proposed start time changes would preclude their students from participating in academic and athletic activities.

St. Ambrose Principal Matthew Metz said altering private school start times would have been "inherently unfair" because it would have prevented their students from participating in some extracurricular activities.

Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations, said a thorough discussion of transportation options could include switching to private-contract busing, adjusted start times or other changes.

However, he suggested, most viable options already have been discussed.

"Much of what we will be doing is reshaping much of the conversation we've had the past two months," he said, adding that other alternatives could come up. "There aren't a lot of rocks that we've left unturned."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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