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Support falls for shorter School District 833 student walking distance

District 833 School Board members last month indicated that they liked a $193,000 proposal to fix a busing problem and to shorten walking distances for grades 6-12.

Their views changed two weeks later when they looked at a $917,000 deficit in the preliminary school district budget for next year.

Now there is less support to shorten the walking distances, but board members still seem supportive of the plan to change some school start times in an attempt to eliminate late busing.

The shifting position comes ahead of two public meetings on the proposed transportation changes and an expected March 20 decision by the School Board.

“Without knowing what we have in the budget, I’d hate to say add on another $193,000 if we already have to make cuts,” board member Katie Schwartz said last week.

Last year children in middle school and high school walked no more than 1.5 miles to class. In a budget-cutting move, the walking distance was extended to include students living up to 2 miles from their school this year. The move was controversial, and the district has proposed reverting to the old walking distance policy for 2014-15. It would cost $143,000; busing changes make up the remaining $50,000 cost.

Board member Laurie Johnson said last year’s spending reductions — which included the longer student walking distances and staff cuts — came after a “hard-fought look at the budget.” The district is still in that mode, Johnson said, adding she is reluctant to support the walking distance change even though she sympathizes with parents who want those distances reduced.

“Many parents do have the ability to take that kid in the car or carpool, and that’s probably been done a lot this winter,” Johnson said.

Board Chairman Ron Kath also was less supportive of a walking distance change, saying he would be “deliberating” over it before the board’s March 20 meeting. Kath said in an interview that he has heard from some parents who want consistency, not another change to the walking policy.

Board member Tracy Brunnette said she would like to switch to the shorter walking distance but would wait to make her decision until after looking at the district’s full budget.

Board members Sharon Van Leer and Katy McElwee-Stevens said they still support the proposal to address the busing problem and shorten the walking distances.

School start time changes proposed

The district proposes changing 10 elementary school start times, adding 10 contract buses and shifting to a three-tier student busing schedule. That would end a five-year problem of more than two-dozen buses arriving up to 15 minutes late each day.

“We have a continuing problem with late buses arriving at our elementary schools,” said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

The proposal under consideration would move seven elementary schools from an 8:10 a.m. start to 8:40 a.m. beginning this fall. Those schools are Armstrong, Cottage Grove, Hillside, Middleton, Pine Hill, Pullman and Woodbury. Their day would end at 3:10 p.m. instead of 2:40 p.m.

Three schools would start at 7:55 a.m. instead of 8:10 a.m. They include Crestview, Red Rock and Royal Oaks. Their day would end at 2:25 p.m. instead of 2:40 p.m.

Crestview’s time would change to address a safety concern. It would use an earlier start time because of traffic coming and going from nearby Park High School.

Dozens of parents showed up at the board’s March 6 meeting. Many of the parents have children at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Woodbury.

An alternative proposal to address the district’s late-busing problem would switch St. Ambrose and the Woodbury-based Math and Science Academy to a 9:20 a.m. start time. It would also eliminate the need for contracted buses. That alternative came at the request last month of board member Jim Gelbmann. It was not among the options recommended by a district transportation task force.

Two years ago the board dismissed a proposal that would similarly affect private schools.

Parents react

St. Ambrose parents oppose the change because they said it would preclude their children from after-school athletics and clubs that begin before the new school day would end.

“It would make it really tough for us to participate in those activities,” St. Ambrose parent Kevin Hustings said.

Greg Doyle, of Cottage Grove, said his daughter attends St. Ambrose. After-school activities have improved her grades and study habits, he said.

“That precludes her from being in any extracurricular activities,” Doyle said of a later school day.

Kath said he opposes putting St. Ambrose and Math and Science Academy on a much later schedule.

“I certainly would not be in support of holding back any of those children from being able to participate in co-curriculars,” he said.

Some public school parents said they are bothered by the proposed elementary school start time changes.

Rich Hoge said he empathizes with the St. Ambrose families. Hoge said his children attend Armstrong Elementary, which also would see a later start time.

Not many employers allow employees to start work after 8 a.m., he said.

“That is a hardship for families to do that,” Hoge said of working parents getting their kids off to school after 8 a.m.

Peg Benson, of Woodbury, has three boys at Royal Oaks and said she is concerned about that school moving to an earlier day.

A former high school English teacher, Benson said she knows what it’s like to teach high school students early in the morning.

“Elementary kids need their sleep too,” she said.

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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