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Parents sound off on District 833 school start time plan (W/VIDEO)

More than 80 parents filled the South Washington County School Board room Thursday to object to the district's plan to change school start times next year as part of a transportation department budget-balancing plan. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente

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Parents packed the District 833 School Board room Thursday to complain about the district's proposed class day changes and fee-based busing for some school programs, urging the board to consider other ways to balance its transportation budget.

The arguments and pleas from parents who spoke up - backed by a crowd of more than 80 people - may have had some influence.

South Washington County School Board members appeared less supportive of changing elementary and middle school start and end times - along with the schedules of private schools in the district - as part of a transportation department budget-balancing plan.

A majority of the parents in attendance have children in private schools within the district, including New Life Academy and St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic School. Their busing schedules would change by up to an hour under the district proposal.

"Do not rush into a short-sighted decision without spending time looking seriously at alternatives," said Matthew Metz, principal of St. Ambrose. Metz and others said the district's proposal may mean students cannot participate in after-school activities, and private schools should have been part of earlier district discussions about school start and end times.

Others said the changes would alter family schedules and force parents to seek different work schedules or change jobs entirely.

Stacy Ekholm, of Cottage Grove, said she already has adjusted her work schedule to accommodate the school day and so that she can be home more with her children before and after school. She could lose some of that time under the district proposal.

"I don't want them with you all day; they're with you long enough," she said. "What you're asking, I think, is ridiculous."

The district is poised to finish this school year with a transportation department budget at roughly $560,000 in the black. However, without any budget changes the fund balance falls to a deficit of about $400,000 by the end of the 2012-13 school year, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations. That does not include an expected cost of $445,000 to purchase buses.

The School Board was considering a five-part plan to balance its transportation budget. The proposal would:

-- Put $150,000 more into transportation from the general fund.

-- Cut $100,000 by reducing transportation staff.

-- Charge a busing fee to students in choice programs - Spanish immersion, Gateway and Valley Crossing - that are not mandated to provide free district transportation. The fee would be $250 per student per year, or a maximum of $500 per family. Low-income families could qualify for a free or reduced rate.

-- Increase walking distances from 1 mile to 1.5 miles for middle school students and from 1.5 miles to 2 miles for high school students, saving about $261,000.

-- Change start and end times for elementary schools, middle schools and private schools, cutting about $479,000 from the budget.

The district by law must provide busing to students who attend private schools at no charge to the student, and then the district is reimbursed by the state.

Superintendent Mark Porter said the district last changed busing and school start times three years ago, and administrators understand that changing the school day impacts families.

"It's not something we take lightly," he said.

None of the alternatives being considered are desirable, Porter said.

"Unfortunately, the discussion at this point in time primarily is one of finances," he said.

The board is expected to make a decision at its May 24 board meeting, but will discuss options at a May 17 workshop.

Board members appeared less supportive of changing the school day schedule than they were when they discussed the issue at a workshop earlier this month.

Board member Tracy Brunnette said altering the school day for grades K-8 and private schools this beginning in just a few months "is just too much, too soon."

Board member Laurie Johnson said she remembers the challenge of juggling her own children's school and activity schedules and trying to work. The school start and end time proposal won't work for people, she said.

"I do think the families have a heavy price to pay," Johnson said.

Board member Ron Kath said he remains undecided on the school start change, but reminded private school parents that the decision also affects every public elementary school.

The district needs to consider its finances too, he said.

"That's the tough choice," Kath said.

There is still some support for the district plan. Board member Jim Gelbmann said he sympathizes with parents, but the district has a deficit to fix and the alternative to further busing changes could be altering class sizes.

"I'm not willing to take money out of our classsrooms in order to plug this gap in our transportation budget," he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Gelbmann said he believes much of the public opposition to the proposed schedule change is coming from parents who just don't want to be inconvenienced.

"Our mission is to educate students," he said. "Our mission is not to make the start times convenient for the family schedule."

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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