by NATHANIEL NELSON
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board will vote next week on whether to move forward with a transportation study of District 861 and see whether there are any major changes that need to be made. The study comes after a slew of parent complaint over long bus times and changing routes, with some elementary school students reporting an hour-and-a-half-long commute to their school. If approved, the study will begin in early December and run through the first month of 2019.
K12 Transportation Management Services, LLC, would conduct the study, and is expected to review the use of carriers, staffing needs, routing efficiency and contracts as well as determine current levels of transportation best practices and analyze vulnerabilities and liabilities in the district’s transportation plan.
Superintendent Rich Dahman told the board at last week’s meeting that the study would give WAPS the opportunity to make sure the district is “safe and efficient.” He added that K12 would work with the board, the transportation department, transportation coordinator and an additional study group to determine what the best move for the district should be.
“The results of this could have an impact on expenditures for the following school year, and it’s something I believe we should complete before working on the budget for next year,” Dahman said.
Some of the possible options, Dahman said, could include increasing or decreasing the number of stops, changing the routes themselves, or even changing the start and end of the school day.
Board member Jeanne Nelson said she was concerned about the length of the school day, claiming it was perhaps too short for the teaching of certain things like reading and math.
“The length of the school day and the number of days taught has long been a concern of ours, and if we can find a way to increase the length of our school day, it would serve us well,” Nelson said.
The study, which would last roughly a month or two, would cost the district less than $3,000, Dahman said. K12 works at a rate of $90 an hour, and the decision up for a vote would allow the study to contain no more than 30 hours of work without additional board approval.
Transportation has been a constant issue for the district this year, following the closing of Rollingstone and Madison elementary schools. When the two buildings were closed, hundreds of students were moved to new schools. Just over 400 students remain at their prior elementary schools, while early estimates showed 386 students switching elementary schools, though these estimates were made before the large drop in enrollment this year. Additionally, the Rios Spanish immersion program jumped from Madison to Jefferson — which included students district-wide — and the STEM program at Jefferson was disbanded, with students who were originally enrolled in the program redistricted to their home school.
With all the changes, the district’s transportation went through just as many changes. Routes were redirected, changed, and even deleted to account for the restructuring of the district’s younger students. Additionally, the former transportation coordinator resigned over the summer, with her replacement taking over just a few weeks before the school year began.
In the process, issues began to arise.
The transportation problems brought up earlier this year when board member Allison Quam added an agenda item to the board’s September 6 meeting due to complaints she had heard from parents. According to Quam, parents had told her their children were on a bus for an hour and a half each way, with some bus stops picking children up as early at 6:09 a.m. from Rollingstone.
At last Thursday’s meeting, Quam brought up those concerns again, asking Dahman if anything had changed since the issue was last spoken about. “I want to know how long do people still ride on the buses. Some were getting on at 6:09 a.m.,” she said.
Dahman stated that the pickups did not start that early, with the earliest pick up time at 6:15 a.m. for students in Rollingstone. Those students are then dropped off at their first transfer point at 7:18 a.m., to be bused to their respective schools before the day starts at 7:45 a.m.
“There is no change to what people were saying in September?” Quam asked again.
“There was no change to the start of our elementary school time, and in order to get our routes completed in time, we have to pick up at 6:15 a.m. or else we have to eliminate some routes,” Dahman said.
Board member Tina Lehnertz added that she had not “heard anything worse, or bad” since September, and said she understood many of the kids who had been having problems were doing well. While she said that things have improved since the start of the school year, she said the study would still be a benefit for the district moving forward — fresh eyes looking into what we think is a concern for parents,” Lehnertz explained.
In an interview after the meeting, Quam said she is still receiving comments from the community about issues within the busing system. The biggest issues, she said, have been the long and early bus routes for elementary school students, students arriving at non-WAPS schools late, and some bus stops having only a single student at them.
“It’s important for people to share their thoughts, and the board shouldn’t see it as complaints but instead that the public is sharing information with their representatives,” she explained.
She added that she was unsure whether any other changes were made to the transportation schedule outside necessary arrangements due to school closure.
As for the study itself, Quam said she still has a few questions, particularly about why the district needs to pay for a study when it has a transportation coordinator on staff, and how the coordinator fits within the study. She also added that the district should have performed the study several years ago when community members asked for it, and before the school closures, but the district should continue to put its focus on the kids.
“The guiding force behind it should be making a decision for what is best for our students. I continue to think that this is a major issue for the district. Kids getting on buses an hour and a half before their school day is concerning,” Quam said.