Woodbury schools would be in line for time change under district proposal

/ 17 April 2012 / jennifer

Judy Spooner, Woodbury Bulletin, April 17, 2012 –

Some District 833 students’ daily schedules may change next year in order to balance the district’s transportation budget and stop a run of deficit spending.

South Washington County School Board members are leaning toward changing elementary and middle school start and end times this fall to save $480,000. The three main high schools would not be affected; some private schools in south Washington County would be affected.

District administrators had recommended waiting to change the times until the 2013-14 school year. Changing start and end times this fall would mean that the board could eliminate a proposal to save $261,000 by increasing walking distances by one-half mile for high schools to two miles and middle schools to one and one-half miles.

Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd said changing start times would be better than increasing walking distances.

She asked if there is information on students being late or absent due to unfavorable weather conditions. The number of dropouts might be affected, she said.

While changing school start times “would be a burden” for parents, board member Jim Gelbmann said increasing walking distances would cause safety problems. Middle school kids would have to start walking to school in the dark in the winter.

He suggested the district consider keeping current distances during December, January and February and increasing them in warmer months.

The board will take public comments at its April 26 meeting and make decisions on four budget proposals or delay decisions for more discussion at the May 10 workshop.

Board Member Tracy Brunnette said people are likely to oppose start times that affect them.

“I’m not trying to be a jerk,” she said, “but what do you think they’re going to say?”

It’s the responsibility of the school board to make the best decision for the district, she said, and not use money for transportation that can be used in classrooms.

What affects cost

The district’s transportation funding shortfall and difficulty balancing that department budget started in 2009 when school attendance boundaries and middle schools were changes. To get kids to school on time, the district contracted for additional buses.

Transportation costs mounted when busing was added for “choice” programs such as Nuevas Fronteras Spanish immersion at Crestview Elementary School, and immersion students at Cottage Grove Middle School.

The administration is also recommending increasing the percentage of general fund money available for transportation from 4.85 percent to 5 percent to add $150,000 a year in revenue.

An additional $100,000 is proposed to be eliminated by not filling an open mechanic’s position and having drivers do daily safety checks.

Also being considered is charging $250 a year per student for busing to choice programs that include Gateway, Nuevas Fronteras, middle school Spanish immersion and Valley Crossing, with a cap of $500 per family and free and reduced rates available for students receiving lunch subsidies. That would raise $144,000 in additional revenue.

Board members appeared reluctant to increase walking distances by one-half mile for secondary students.

Board member Marsha Adou said non-public school buses, like those for choice programs, are more expensive because students are bused from all areas of the district. She asked if the district could charge non-public students more than the state reimbursement the district gets for non-public busing.

Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities, said the state averages the amount of money spent for busing and divides it by the number of bused students. This year the state paid $319 per student.

Gary Dechaine, the district transportation director, said the district is not required to bus students to choice programs but is mandated to bus non-public school students.

Adou asked if transportation bought global positioning systems, as it proposed, for buses.

GPS systems were about $30,000 but when he learned that it would cost an additional $20,000 in cellular charges to operate them, the entire project was cancelled, Dechaine said.

Regarding walking distances, Vogel said all East Ridge High School students would still be bused because there is no place for students to walk and roads to the schools are defined as hazardous. It’s a similar situation at Cottage Grove Elementary School.

Road speeds in school zones are very tightly controlled, said Superintendent Mark Porter. Bailey Road is not considered a school zone because most of it abuts Bielenberg Sports Center and not East Ridge.

Charging $250 per student, or $500 per family, for busing to choice programs would lower the number of students being bused by 30 percent, according to Vogel’s estimate, with 100 percent participation by families getting reduced rates or paying no fees.

Boyd asked if the district has an accurate count of the number of students who would receive reduced rates because they are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and whether students whose families don’t pay fees would return to assigned schools.

Vogel said families would probably pool resources and drive their students as they did before busing was added in 2009. If parents live three miles from school, it would cost them more to drive than paying the fee, he said.

Dechaine said the transportation department has not considered busing by neighborhoods in which students of all ages would ride the same bus, as suggested by Adou.

Under a start-time proposal eliminated by the board, that would save $322,596, only middle schools would change start times. School would begin at 7:35 a.m., 20 minutes earlier than the current starting time.

Vogel said the Anoka-Hennepin district tried charging for busing and permitted students to pay for busing on a trimester basis. The district has abandoned the entire bus fee program, he said.