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District 833 could bump up middle schools' start time to trim bus costs

The District 833 School Board might have middle school students start class earlier to save $190,000 in busing costs.

The board is discussing changing the start time for the district's four middle schools from 7:55 a.m. to 7:35 a.m., which would eliminate the need to lease 10 buses.

The proposal, discussed at the board's workshop last Thursday, also would solve a bus scheduling problem that developed in October of 2009 when the district change attendance boundaries, opened a new high school, moved ninth-graders to high schools and changed junior highs to middle schools with grades 6-8.

At the time of those changes, school start times were also changed and a fifth start time added for elementary schools. High school start times were moved from 7:30 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. because of education research suggesting that early morning classes hinder learning for high school students.

But amid those numerous changes, a glitch developed in bus scheduling for middle schools that caused buses to be up to 40 minutes late to pick up elementary school kids. It was solved by adding 10 leased buses, for $120,000 the first year and $190,000 this year, a cost the board wants to eliminate as it looks to trim $2 million from next year's budget.

When the problem was brought to the board two years ago, there were no easy answers and the board opted for stability and leased the buses, said Superintendent Mark Porter.

Since the problem first developed, other district changes have added to the difficulty of bus scheduling, including that Spanish Immersion students at Crestview Elementary School, who live in all areas of the district, have progressed to Cottage Grove Middle School. When combined with the cost of adding preschool for 4-year-olds this year, it increased busing costs by $70,000.

The district owns, operates and staffs its own busing system, which is housed on West Point Douglas Drive off of the Jamaica Avenue interchange in Cottage Grove.

For the third year, the transportation department has used fund reserves to cover budget deficits, but the fund is dwindling, according to Gary Dechaine, transportation director.

The budget has also been affected by increasing fuel costs that are 14 percent of the transportation budget, and going up nine times faster than increases in transportation funding from the state.

A regular 78-passenger bus costs $95,000 but there is no additional room to store them at the current transportation hub.

There are other budget-saving options. The district could increase walking distances by one-half mile back to the pre-2009 level with middle school children walking 1.5 miles and secondary students two miles and keep a one-mile limit at elementary schools, which would save $261,000, according to Duchaine.

The district could also offer to bus kids outside of the set distances for a fee. The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district will break even or make a slight profit this year by offering that service for a fee, according to Dechaine. Fees vary from $200 to $250, according to the district. His department would need to hire a full-time person to manage the accounts, he said.

The current bus schedule can't be sustained, Porter said, but the administration did not intend to open the discussion to all possible changes other than start times.

Increasing walking distances or charging fees aren't worth discussing, said board member Tracy Brunnette. The district should have changed start times "a long time ago," she said.

"I'm totally against 7:35 a.m. for middle school," said board member Marsha Adou.

Adou suggested that high school kids sign a release saying they don't intend to ride the bus, which would cut the number of routes.

She also suggested looking for an additional bus garage in Woodbury, but Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities, has said current zoning would not allow a bus garage.

Dechaine said the state requires districts to have a bus seat for all students outside of walking distances. If students are asked if they will give up seats, parents will encourage them to sign up anyway in case their children need to ride buses.

"I want to make a change now," Brunnette said, because the lease money is coming from the district's general fund.

Board member Jim Gelbmann agreed, adding that he's not opposed to increasing walking distances or charging fees.

Board members David Kemper and Laurie Johnson also agreed.

Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd said she is not opposed to changing start times, extending walking distances or charging fees.

Board member Ron Kath said other ideas should be considered such as a hub system used in rural areas where kids in one quadrant, regardless of age, ride the same buses.

Gelbmann asked if ads are allowed on the sides of school buses. Not in Minnesota, said Dechaine.

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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