by ALEXANDRA RETTER and SARAH SQUIRES
Earlier this fall, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) issued a statement: “We want to be clear: What happened today is in no way acceptable.”
The letter to parents addressed transportation problems that arose on the first day of the school year. In the statement, WAPS thanked those who expressed to the district their dissatisfaction with busing problems on the first day of school and promised to work to resolve them. After working with busing contractors to clear up some of the issues, WAPS is now examining offering a new app for parents and guardians that would allow them to track the location of buses for students.
The free app is called FirstView, and it is offered by First Student, the district’s bus transportation provider. With the app, which functions somewhat like a GPS program, guardians can find out information about buses, such as where they are on their routes, how far away they are from their stops and whether they have been delayed, WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit said. The app can be downloaded onto electronic devices.
“I mentioned it to a few parents on calls, and they said, ‘Oh, that’d be great,’” Freiheit shared.
The app has a function that would allow the district to monitor various aspects of student transportation as well, Freiheit explained. The district could track how often buses are on time, for example.
Freiheit said that if the decision is made to move forward with putting the app into action, the implementation could take four to six weeks. She added that communicating with families regarding how precisely to utilize the app would be highly important.
“We’d want to plot out exactly how we’d go about educating families [about the app],” Freiheit said.
The WAPS Board was expected to be briefed on the new application system just after the Winona Post went to press on Tuesday.
Transportation changes prompt issues
On the starts to the last school years, WAPS was faced with a slew of complaints from parents and guardians about bus and routing concerns. First, during the 2018-2019 school year, the problems came alongside the redistricting of Madison and Rollingstone elementary school students following the closure of the schoolhouses. Hundreds of students were assigned new school buildings; the Rios Spanish immersion program was moved from Madison to Jefferson; and the STEM program that was formerly offered as a magnet program at Jefferson was provided district-wide.
The former transportation coordinator resigned over the summer months before that school year began, and her replacement resigned in March 2019.
Some complaints aired at the WAPS Board table included those made by parents concerned that their children, particularly those in the Rollingstone area, were spending too long on the bus, some as many as three hours a day. The board voted unanimously to conduct a busing study by K-12 Transportation Management Services to better understand whether changes could be made to the busing system that would address some of the parent concerns.
In June, the board was briefed on a one-page summary detailing the transportation study. A listening session was held with district parents and a survey was conducted, with the survey indicating the majority of respondents were satisfied with the busing services offered by WAPS. It detailed the number of routes and students served and noted that landscape and the large geographic configuration of the district affects its routing efficiency. The summary also indicated several measures that could save money — one would have eliminated or combined routes but would have created longer rides for school children; the other would have created a three-tier system that could have saved 25 percent on busing costs but would have made some younger students start school earlier in the day and older students start later. The board followed former superintendent Rich Dahman’s recommendation not to pursue those concepts.
The board later voted to hire K-12 Transportation to administer its busing system, rather than replace the full-time transportation coordinator position, for a savings of over $20,000.