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School District 833 approves transportation, start time changes; St. Ambrose, MSA object

District 833 will change 11 elementary school start times and force later school days next year at St. Ambrose Catholic School and the Math and Science Academy.

The changes solve a scheduling problem that for several years has caused some district middle school buses to drop off students well ahead of the class day and caused up to 27 elementary school buses to arrive late for their afternoon pick-ups.

The new policy addresses transportation officials’ nagging frustration about inadequate service and it will reduce the district’s deficit by $267,900 next year. Additionally, the district no longer will have to pay to use contract buses to supplement its own fleet.

However, School Board members and Superintendent Keith Jacobus, who recommended the change, said it is difficult because it affects family schedules and could limit the ability for St. Ambrose and Math and Science Academy students to participate in after-school activities.

“It is a concern,” Jacobus admitted, “and when you hear students and you hear the impact on parents, it’s very difficult.”

Jacobus said public comment was varied on the transportation proposals that were considered, and that he has to make recommendations in the best interest of the district.

Board members said they listened to opponents of the plan but also had to consider the district’s finances. Despite an approved referendum last fall and increased state funding, District 833 still faces a budget deficit of about $456,000, which is expected to be covered by reserves instead of further budget reductions.

“Sometimes, as much as you hate to say it, it does come down to the finances,” board member Katy McElwee-Stevens said during the Thursday, March 20, meeting. “We don’t want to be poor stewards of the money.”

The School Board decided not to change the walking distance for students in grades 6-12 next year. It was increased this year to 1.5 miles for middle school students and 2 miles for high school students. Reducing those walking distances to 1 mile and 1.5 miles, respectively, would have cost roughly $143,000.

Student appeal

The change for Math and Science Academy is problematic, said MSA student Jade Arrowsmith. In an emotional appeal to the board, Arrowsmith presented a petition with 104 signatures of students opposed to the change. She said after-school clubs, which have low numbers to start with, will struggle to attract students.

“With the time change, there’d be less people wanting to go into clubs,” she said. Clubs are important because they’re a way for students to socialize and be involved outside of the classroom, she added.

The change also affects students’ jobs and their time with families, Arrowsmith added.

It was the third recent board meeting attended by parents of St. Ambrose parents. They said the proposal chosen by the School Board was not discussed by a transportation task force and was re-introduced late in the process. They said they are being unfairly targeted and that the board was not listening to them.

Other private schools and public charter or choice schools already start after 9 a.m. According to the district, it’s most efficient to schedule them that way because those students are bused from all over the district, not from within individual school boundaries.

St. Ambrose objects

St. Ambrose Principal Cheri Gardner asked the School Board to look at all district taxpayers. She said her school’s parents have supported public school referendums.

“They are taxpayers in this district and they deserve equal transportation, equal rights for all of our students,” she said.

The School Board rejected a similar transportation proposal two years ago. District officials say that is why it was not among three options initially presented to the School Board last month. Board member Jim Gelbmann asked that it be considered, saying later that he knew from the board discussion two years ago that there would be financial savings. Gelbmann said St. Ambrose was not targeted because it’s a parochial school.

“We’re singling them out because they’re districtwide transportation routes,” he said of St. Ambrose and Math and Science Academy.

St. Ambrose supporters said the district could face a legal problem because state law requires that a public school system provide equal busing to private school students that it transports.

Labor and employment attorney Tom Revnew warned that litigation would cost the district any savings it achieves by adopting the plan, and that it will lose students.

“You have dollars and you have school children,” Revnew said. “You can talk about the dollars all you want. This issue is really about the school children.”

After the board voted 5-2 for the transportation plan, Revnew stormed out of the room while shouting that the board did not listen to the public.

Jacobus said in an interview that he believes the district’s plan is legal.

“Districts have the option to set the start times,” he 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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