South Washington County schools change course on busing plans

New move saves money but draws criticism from two nondistrict schools.

The South Washington County school system is considering changing its transportation policy to cut the distance middle- and high-schoolers walk to school.

Photo: Richard Sennott • rsennott@startribune.com,

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In what has become a tense annual debate of late, the South Washington County school board recently approved a school busing plan for 2014-15 that will change some district elementary school start times and force new, later starts at two nondistrict schools.

The board backed off a February proposal to spare students at the Math and Science Academy charter school and at St. Ambrose Catholic School, both of Woodbury, from having to begin the school day later. For the Math and Science Academy, the start time now will be pushed back from 7:30 to 9:20 a.m.

Swept aside, too, was a proposal to shorten the distance from school at which buses would pick up and drop off secondary students.

The board, in setting aside the two proposals, cited a desire to save money. The district faces another budget deficit in 2014-15.

“We’re trying to squeeze the life out of every dollar we get,” board Member Katy McElwee-Stevens said.

The proposal to preserve the current start times at the Math and Science Academy and St. Ambrose called for the district to contract out for bus service, a move that would have increased its transportation costs by about $50,000, according to district estimates.

The board’s 5-to-2 vote on March 20 followed sometimes emotional testimony from people opposed to the later start times at the two non­district schools.

Jade Arrowsmith, a 10th-grader at the Math and Science Academy who heads the school’s Asian Club, had to stop and gather herself several times as she expressed fears that fewer students would be involved in such groups because their meetings take place after school and the later hours might discourage them from joining.

She presented the board with a petition signed by 104 students opposed to a schedule change.

St. Ambrose Principal Cheri Gardner said that she had been a member of a task force that advised the district on the transportation options, and that those members agreed on a plan that would have shortened walking distances and preserved the current start times at the Math and Science Academy and St. Ambrose. She told board members that parents who send their kids to schools outside the district pay taxes, too, and deserve equal transportation and equal rights.

St. Ambrose will see its school start pushed back from 8:35 to 9:20 a.m. The changes bring St. Ambrose and the Math and Science Academy at or near the same start times as five other nondistrict schools for which South Washington County provides transportation.

This year’s debate marked the third consecutive year that the board had wrestled with transportation issues. Last year, in an effort to save money, the district lengthened the bus-service boundaries for secondary students. Under that policy, which now remains in place, middle-school students living within 1.5 miles of school must walk or find a ride. The walking distance for high-schoolers remains unchanged at 2 miles.

The proposal put in play in February would have shrunk both distances by half a mile and cost the district about $144,000.

The district set out to re­arrange its busing and school-start schedules to resolve what officials described as inefficient and unacceptable levels of service. Michael Vogel, the district’s director of operations, said too many middle-school students were being dropped off too early in the morning — some as early as 35 minutes before school — and that the district had as many as 27 buses arriving up to 15 minutes late to pick up elementary school students in the afternoon.

Under the new plan, school will begin at 8:40 a.m., or a half-hour later, at Armstrong, Cottage Grove, Hillside, Middleton, Pine Hill, Pullman and Woodbury elementaries. The first bell will ring 15 minutes earlier at 7:55 a.m. at Crestview, Red Rock and Royal Oaks elementaries. In addition, Grey Cloud Elementary will see its start time moved up from 9:20 to 8:40 a.m.

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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