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District 833 proposes shorter student walking distances, some school busing changes

Since the district implemented the existing schedule in 2009, it has struggled to get buses on time for afternoon pick-up due to a tight timeline in the four-tier time schedule, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations. The district is considering a proposal that would eliminate late routes. (Bulletin file photo)

District 833 may step back to shorter student walking distances and change some school schedules to improve bus transportation.

Just one year after increasing walking distances for middle-schoolers and high school students, the South Washington County School Board is considering a proposal to provide busing to more students and change 10 elementary school start and end times beginning this fall.

The proposal for 2014-15 represents the largest student transportation change in five years and is a response to what administrators said is an unacceptable level of service.

Since the district implemented the existing schedule in 2009, it has struggled to get buses on time for afternoon pick-up due to a tight timeline in the four-tier time schedule, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations. There are 27 buses that run late.

“It’s simply not an acceptable level of service to continue having those buses running late,” Vogel said. The on-time service problem doesn’t “sit well” with transportation staff, he added.

District staff is proposing to switch to a three-tier schedule that relies on more contract busing. The district uses 10 contract buses in the afternoon, but it would also need 10 contract buses in the morning in order to provide transportation to students at Math and Science Academy and St. Ambrose Catholic School. (District 833 is required to provide transportation to all private schools and charter schools.)

The transportation change would cost an additional $193,000. That includes $143,000 to bus more students after reinstating the shorter walking distances, and another $50,000 to switch to the three-tier busing plan with more contracted buses.

School Board members said they could support the proposal during a Feb. 20 meeting, but there was no discussion about how it would be paid for.

There is not a funding source to cover that increase, Superintendent Keith Jacobus told the Bulletin later. Any increase in transportation costs would have to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the district budget.

“It will not be easy to fund the changes but we know the reductions last year were difficult for the families affected by the new distances that students were required to walk,” Jacobus said.

Last year the district imposed new walking distances of up to 1.5 miles for middle school and 2 miles for high school. The old distances were 1 mile for middle school and 1.5 miles for high school. That is what the district would return to under the new proposal.

The proposal also would move eight elementary school starts from 8:10 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. Their day would end at 3:10 p.m. instead of this year’s 2:40 p.m. final bell. The schools affected by that change would be Armstrong, Cottage Grove, Crestview, Hillside, Middleton, Pine Hill, Pullman and Woodbury.

Two other elementary schools — Red Rock and Royal Oaks — would see their start times move up 15 minutes to 7:55 a.m. Their new end time would be 2:25 p.m.

Students at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Woodbury, who like other private and charter school students receive busing through the district, would see their day shift 5 minutes later. St. Ambrose would start at 8:40 a.m. and end at 3:10 p.m.

Middle school and high school schedules are not affected by the transportation proposal.

“It really does take care of the timing issues we have,” Transportation Director Ron Meyer said.

Administrators are asking the School Board to decide on the transportation proposal by March 20, to be in line with the district’s budget process and to give parents and school staff enough time to prepare for the changes.

Board members said they like the proposal. Chairman Ron Kath said it reduces the walking distances and fixes the bus issue with the least impact on students.

“This seems like a really good scenario, especially moving the walking distances back,” said board member Tracy Brunnette.

Board member Jim Gelbmann said he could support the proposal but asked administrators to determine how much money the district could save by scheduling private schools and charter schools with later start times and the last busing route. The district previously considered that as a cost-saving measure, but it was shelved amid vocal opposition, mostly from St. Ambrose and New Life Academy families who said it could prevent their students from participating in after-school sports and activities.

District administrators will present the transportation proposal to schools and families affected by the change ahead of the March 20 School Board meeting.

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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