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Paynesville Press - March 8, 2006

Parents express concerns with proposed bus policy

By Michael Jacobson

The school district held a public hearing last week about proposed changes to the district's transportation policy, drawing concerns from 20 parents and daycare providers about a proposed one pick-up, one drop-off policy.

The hour-long public hearing was held in the school auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Superintendent Todd Burlingame - who hosted the public hearing along with school board members David Johnson and Allen Schmidt, members of the transportation committee, and with Phyllis Nielson, Mike Putzke, and Marlene Theel from Paynesville Motor and Transfer, the district's bus contractor - started the meeting by saying that Nielsen came into his office recently with a "bazillion notes" and said it was becoming a concern.

The district sent letters to parents of pre-K to fourth grade students about possible changes to the transportation policy for the 2006-07 school year. One proposed change would limit students to one pick-up spot in the morning and one drop-off spot in the afternoon. These could be different spots, but students would have to choose one spot to board a bus in the morning and one to get dropped at in the afternoon.

K-5 students are the primary riders of the school buses, added Burlingame, with ridership decreasing as students go to the middle school and high school.

Even if the proposed policy were approved, said Burlingame, the district would allow changes when daycare providers go on vacation, on Wednesdays for churches (in particular for religion classes at St. Louis Catholic Church), for intraschool transportation (to the middle/high school from the elementary school, and vice versa), and in emergencies. "We do realize that many parents work, we have many single parents, and everybody is on fast forward," said Burlingame.

The district could also consider having one alternate site per child, to give parents some flexibility, added Burlingame.

Proposed changes to the district's transportation changes are still being considered by the transportation committee. Eventually, any changes to the district's transportation policy would need to be approved by the full school board. In addition to Johnson and Schmidt, four other school board members - Mark Dingmann, Deb Glenz, Gretchen O'Fallon, and Fern Roberg - also attended the public hearing last week.

The bus company gets lots of phone calls and notes with bus route changes, said Nielsen, who cited the proposed change as a safety measure and also cited a number of school districts that have adopted it, including Rocori and St. Cloud. (Rocori did implement a one pick-up and one drop-off policy this school year, according to its superintendent, and one argument was for safety. But Rocori also adopted this policy in conjunction with budget cuts to its bus transportation. With fuller buses, the same flexibility could not be offered because spaces were not available on other buses.)

Parental concerns, though, focused on their need for flexibility (for work, for example, with students alternating between being dropped off at home and at daycare). "Our lives are so hustle-bustle," said one mother.

The bus company appreciates "courtesy calls," if a child is sick and not riding the bus that day, if the family is going on vacation, etc., said Theel, especially for out-of-the-way stops and highway stops.

"The notes that really create a hassle are the ones at the last minute," said Theel. "You're dealing with one child; we're dealing with 40 or 50."

"We do not want to drop your child off at the wrong spot on the wrong day," said Theel. "And with the number of notes we're getting, it's going to happen. We'd rather be proactive rather than reactive."

Elementary principal Deb Gillman estimated that every elementary school teacher has three or four notes with transportation changes each day. "The issue is so many changes, so often," she said.

Some parental calls come close to the 2:50 p.m. daily dismissal of students at the elementary school.

"If that note gets lost, what happens to the child?" asked Nielsen.

"Those notes are a nightmare," said one bus driver. "We bring them in by the handful." He said the radio traffic - "Have you got so-and-so on the bus?" - was "ridiculous." "I drove a little girl 12 miles to a daycare. I didn't know where it was. She just said, 'Drive. I'll show you where it is,' " he said.

Lots of students get on the bus at home and get off at a daycare, said Nielsen and Putzke, which would be allowed by the policy change.

"We need to do something to eliminate this," Theel said, pointing at a container full of notes. She also suggested that drop-off and pick-up changes be limited to the same bus (meaning that students could only change if they could ride the same bus.)

Parents, though, offered a number of ways to make the transportation safer without a single pick-up, single drop-off policy. One daycare parent said that parents should be expected to stick to a good, organized schedule. Riding is a privilege, not a right, she added.

The proposed change, agreed another parent, seemed like "punishing everyone because some people are abusing it."

While Putzke argued that one drop-off site would be safer because parents would always know where their kids are, some parents disagreed.

"One spot does not guarantee the safety of the kid," said the teacher/ parent, who said he thought he was being responsible by pinning a note to his daughter's school bag and a note to her friend's school bag for them to ride together on the bus home. "What you want us to do, we will do it," he added, asking the board not to punish all parents for the mistakes of a few.

The parents at the meeting agreed that parents need to act responsibly, but, through their comments, they demonstrated that parents do not have a clear understanding of what is currently required.

It was not clear how much of the problem were notes sent by parents in the morning or calls during the day either to the school office or to the bus company.

The current school policy, noted one parent, requires a note to change buses, not a phone call.

There also was no description of what might be considered an "emergency," allowing for a last-minute change, under the new policy.

Glenz, a daycare provider as well as a school board member, disputed the safety argument for the proposed single pick-up and single drop-off policy. "We're all concerned about safety," she said, while listing reasons that parents need flexibility: single parents, divorced parents, rotating work schedules, shift work, 20 daycares, etc. "There's a million and one reasons for (schedule) variance," she said.

Daycares cannot have part-timers dropped off at their homes on days when they do not come to their daycare or risk violating their license, she added, along with another daycare provider. And parents worried that more students would ride the bus to an empty house if flexibility were eliminated from the district's transportation policy.

Glenz said some parents might figure - "it's only an hour and a half alone" - and decide to have their children go home alone after school if the district's transportation policy does not accommodate their needs for flexibility.

"We understand that something needs to be done (to reduce the number of notes)," said Glenz. But cannot go too far the other way and make it too restrictive for parents.

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