by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Winona Area Public Schools is investing $150,000 in a new bus that will travel throughout the area to bring programs to people of all ages.
The School Board approved the purchase of the bus at its November 17 meeting. Earlier this year, the board approved going forward with the purchase of a bus as part of a set of enrollment strategies it passed. “The biggest issue I think that we face is the enrollment decline, and I guess what I’m hoping is that as WAPS competes with parochial schools and charter schools for an increasingly small pool of students, I’m hoping the bus can be used in ways that go out into the community and inform the community of the good things WAPS offers, and maybe that awareness can have a salutary effect on our enrollment,” School Board member Steve Schild said.
“… Our primary goal is to touch the lives of more people that aren’t showing up within our buildings,” Community Education Director Ann Riebel said. This includes community members who live outside Winona and those without transportation, she said.
The district could use the bus to bring activities to a park in Stockton when the weather is nice, for example, Riebel said. Children could take part in a physical activity, reading group and circle time. Additionally, WAPS could use the bus for screenings for young children before they enter kindergarten, she said. Staff could use the bus to help high school students volunteer in the community, as well, she added.
The bus could also serve adults, Riebel said, in English as a Second Language and GED courses and Project COMPASS.
Overall, staff in areas such as adult basic education, adult enrichment, family enrichment and elementary enrichment could use it, Riebel said. “So I really do expect a broad range of programs to be able to access it,” she said.
The goal is to modify the bus to include features such as removable chairs and tables, storage areas and WiFi, Riebel said. The district will not be able to transport students with the bus, she said.
The bus is a 2016 Starcraft that is 26 feet long and ADA accessible, Riebel said. Its estimated cost is about $152,000, which includes $66,950 for the bus, $65,000 for modifying the bus and $13,700 for a graphic wrap with WAPS logos, she said. The cost includes other items such as transporting the bus to where it will be modified and transferring its title, as well. The district will work with Davey Coach of Colorado on the bus purchase.
“To be perfectly honest, when this idea first came up, I was a little bit skeptical, but I know Ann and her staff have put a lot of thought into how it might be used,” Schild said, adding, “The cost, per se, doesn’t bother me.” He continued that saving money in the short term on the bus’s features may not allow it to succeed in the future, so he would rather not cut corners now.
Riebel said there are a limited number of used buses available currently, and other options she explored did not include items such as modifications and title transfer or provide a quote for mechanical work prior to examining the bus.
Earlier this fall, the Minnesota Department of Education approved the use of $65,000 in federal COVID relief funding for the bus, Riebel said. The remainder of the cost will be covered by reserves in her department budget, which stand at about $602,000. The savings allow the department to explore new programs while waiting to see if they generate revenue, she said, and hire a staff member to help coordinate programming. When other departments use the bus, they will be charged for that use, she said.
The hope is for the bus to be finished by next spring, Riebel said. She also hopes to partner with other community groups on the bus. As her department moves from providing emergency child care at the height of the pandemic to engaging with community members again, she has enjoyed seeing her staff imagine how to use the bus. “I’m really excited to watch my staff be creative with new programming. We like to touch the community outside the school day and in the summer. I’m really excited to be able to have other opportunities in people’s home neighborhoods for kids to come to … I’m really excited to be able to connect with people that we haven’t connected with in the past, or at a time of the year we typically don’t see them,” she said.