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Viewpoint: There are no easy school transportation decisions

I have worked for many years with some outstanding school board members. I have watched them weighing difficult options as they struggle to make good decisions. But many times, a good decision for some is not as good a decision for others. Many problems are absolute dilemmas, where there is not an easy right or wrong answer. The right answer depends on your view of the problem at hand.

Let me give you an example that is current and ongoing. Every single year the issue of student transportation is up for discussion before the School Board and decisions need to be made. Who is going to get a ride to school on a school bus and who is going to walk, or be transported by parents? Where will the bus stop be and how far will my children have to walk to the bus stop? Is the bus stop visible from my home? Is it safe?

Now I know firsthand that parents take these issues very serious. I have had many difficult conversations with parents that did not end very well. I understand where they are coming from, but I could not always give them the answer they wanted or demanded. This is a no-win proposition.

After the local decision was reached, the angry parent would call the Minnesota Department of Education or a local legislator and be told this decision is up to the district. The state law says all children living over two miles from school will receive bus services, but anything less than two miles is up to the local School Board and that bus stops are a local decision. What they do not tell you is where the money is going to come from for any services under this two-mile limit. It comes from other district programs. Most districts do provide transportation for elementary students living over one-mile from school and special education students receive necessary transportation services.

Until 1996-97, the state always provided a separate funding category for the transportation of students. In 1996-97, the transportation amount was put into the whole funding formula in which almost all the district K-12 programs are funded. This change was meant to encourage efficiencies in transportation programs. But what this change accomplished was to put school transportation in competition with things like class size, program offerings, athletics, etc. We all understand that over time, student safety issues have become much more complex and have to be taken into account in making decisions about transportation, but so has the demand for more improved academic programs so that our students get into good schools and are job ready.

In a constant search for efficiencies, there is also always a discussion of changing start times. This affects almost every student in the district whether they are transported by school bus or not. This also affects those attending non-public schools that receive transportation services.

So each year at budget time, prior to the start of yet another school year, the School Board is left debating who is going to receive transportation services, or on the other hand, who is not, and how will this be paid for in the district budget. The angry parent arguing for transportation services may not give a rip how the district pays for the service, but the School Board has that responsibility.

This takes me back to the very difficult job of being a good School Board member. They must weigh all the issues and make a decision that is not going to please everyone concerned.  This is my definition of being a good elected official. Good luck, District 833 School Board members.

Tom Nelson is a former superintendent at South Washington County and other metro area school districts. He lives in Woodbury.