by NATHANIEL NELSON
For the last month, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has been without a transportation coordinator, with a central printing employee taking her place to field calls and voicemails. On Wednesday, following a split 3-3 decision the week prior, the School Board discussed hiring a replacement, but some members questioned the necessity of the administrative position and proposed that a hiring freeze should have been enacted earlier, while other members voiced concern over having a vacant spot for so long. The nearly two-hour long discussion that followed did not result in a decision on the open administrative post and pointed to a tense week ahead, as the board ponders one simple question: how can the district do right by its students?
On March 4, the former transportation coordinator resigned –– less than a year into her tenure –– amidst an ongoing study of District 861’s transportation services. The coordinator serves multiple roles in the district, including routing students to both WAPS and other local schools, handling calls and complaints from parents, and working with the district’s busing contractor.
At the first WAPS Board meeting of the month, a motion to hire a new transportation coordinator failed to move forward as the six-member board was split on whether to fill the vacant slot. Board members Michael Hanratty, Allison Quam, and Karl Sonneman voted against the motion, while Steve Schild, Tina Lehnertz and board chair Nancy Denzer voted to hire. With a 3-3 vote, the motion laid stagnant.
In response, Denzer called a special meeting for the following Wednesday to hear options on how to move forward. “My concern is that we’re compromising [the district’s transportation services], and for every day that it happened, we have an obligation and responsibility for our families to service at a high rate of efficiency,” Denzer said. “It’s a matter of how do we proceed here to accomplish that.”
Board members were split on several points through the evening, including the importance of the position, the timing of the hiring and whether enough credence was being given to other staff in the district.
“I don’t understand why we would vote no for a position that gets our kids and nonpublic kids to and from school every day safely,” Lehnertz said.
“When looking at budget cuts, we’ve heard from the community about what we can save on,” Hanratty said, referencing comments from parents and district residents on cutting administration. “This is a chance to discuss freezing the position.”
Hanratty, Quam, and Sonneman held steadfast to their initial stance during the special session, citing numerous points of contention for the hiring. One of the predominant talking points was that of a hiring freeze across the district, at least until the budget reduction process is over.
“As the political structure of the board changes, I would have taken it that administration would see what was happening and […] would have come forward to actively and aggressively freeze hiring to show that this district was serious about its budget cuts,” Sonneman said.
The transportation coordinator, as an administrative position, was cited as a possible cut from the top sector of the district. Sonneman explained that by not hiring someone to fill the spot, the district could avoid having to fire another person from administration and instead find ways to delineate the position’s responsibility to different staff.
Quam agreed, adding that superintendent Rich Dahman should come up with a possible solution on how to reorganize the administrative offices to accommodate potential downsizing. She explained that figuring out how to reorganize was not a duty of the School Board, but instead the responsibility of the staff in charge.
“I would like there to be an evaluation about efficiencies in the central [administrative] office to see what could be done to make changes,” Quam said. “We’ve been cutting teachers for 10 years, and we need to change that trajectory.”
“He’s an administrator, not a magician,” board member Steve Schild responded.
The role itself has some baggage attached. According to human resources director Emily Solheid, the position is well known for being stressful and overwhelming, leading to more frequent “burnout” than other positions in the district. In talking with other districts, she said many thought the transportation department was understaffed — not overstaffed.
“We’ve gone through three transportation coordinators in the past four years and some of the comments we’ve received from those coordinators is the amount of stress and amount of time, especially in the busy seasons,” Solheid said. “No wonder this position burns out over and over and over again.”
The duties of the transportation coordinator have been assigned to a staff member from central printing while the board figures out what the next step is, Dahman explained, and that staff member has little to no training in the services. While they are able to answer phone calls and check in on students, the actual routing process is another story entirely.
“It’s creating a disservice to our teachers and our students,” Dahman said.
If the district were to hire a new transportation coordinator, they would also have to go through a two-day training program to get accustomed to the software and programs.
Dahman brought in several alternative options through subcontracting out to other organizations –– specifically, K12 Transportation, which has been in charge of the recent transportation study, and the district’s bussing contractor First Transportation Solutions. The two organizations placed proposals of roughly $60,000 and $95,000 a year, respectively, for routing solutions –– a transportation coordinator would cost the district around $72,000 a year including salary and benefits, explained finance director Sarah Slaby.
However, despite the importance given to the role by administrators and some board members, the dissenting members were unconvinced.
“All of us here want our children to get to school safely and I believe if this position is not filled, they still will be,” Quam said.
The three dissenting members explained that they thought the meeting seemed like an “inquisition” and an “attempt to micromanage,” particularly as the decision on where to cut $2.25 million is coming up fast. Sonneman said he would have preferred the question to have been added to the April 18 meeting after the budget decisions are finalized, instead of brought up in a special session.
“I can’t see how this is an emergency, and I don’t see why we needed to have a meeting tonight,” Sonneman explained.
While the issue of the transportation coordinator was not resolved at Wednesday’s meeting, the special session served as a sort of preamble for next week’s budget reduction decisions. Board members talked at length about the importance of teaching positions, lamented the amount of the cuts, pressed for additional thought to be put in toward efficiencies, and asked that cuts be kept “out of the classroom.” With more than 15 teaching positions and numerous programs including fourth-grade orchestra and individual music lessons on the list of potential cuts, these same points will undoubtedly be raised again on Thursday.
The most contentious of these points will be the latter, as board members showed on Wednesday that their individual ideas of what is a “classroom” expense and what isn’t vary from person to person.
Is a transportation coordinator as necessary for students as a teacher? Should class sizes be kept small? Does the district really have too many teachers? Where else can cuts be made? The WAPS Board’s discussion will revolve around answering these questions next week, and board members are already calling for a more cooperative approach moving forward.
“It doesn’t matter what superintendent we bring on board, it doesn’t matter how we attack the problems that come before us,” Lehnertz said. “Until parents, teachers, administration and this board come together and start working together, this district is going to continue spinning its wheels.”