Davidson says district needs to be more consumer-friendly.

    Will a compromise in the Crookston School District's busing policy – in the form of a modified policy that's more flexible for parents and kids, but doesn't revert to the "free for all" days from a few years ago – be enough to convince some Crookston parents to not open-enroll their children in nearby school districts, most notably, Fisher?

    Crookston School Board Member Dave Davidson thinks a more "consumer-friendly" transportation policy can only help. While he said at a board Transportation Policy Committee meeting last week that he doubts many families who are already open-enrolling would bring their kids back to Crookston because of a more flexible busing policy, he added that a less rigid policy might keep some future families from deciding to open enroll their kids in the first place.

    At Davidson's request, last week's committee meeting was scheduled. In pushing for a conversation on the district's busing policy, the first-term school board member said he has specific knowledge of several families open-enrolling their kids elsewhere predominantly because of the busing policy in Crookston. He said he knew of one family that would like their child dropped off at home three days a week after school, and at the swimming pool the other two days. That pattern would continue for many weeks, Davidson said, and the family would be able to give plenty of advance notice when their child's busing needs would change.

    "That's just one example," he said. "I have a bunch."

    Another committee meeting will be held this Wednesday at noon in the school district office conference room at the high school. At that meeting, Superintendent Chris Bates, Transportation/Buildings and Grounds Director Rick Niemela, Business Manager Laura Lyzewski and other administrators are expected to detail proposed changes to the policy that they've crafted since last week's discussion.

    The school board approved a modified busing policy in 2010, after Niemela and the two elementary building principals voiced their concerns over numerous calls from parents on a daily basis, requesting different pick-up or drop-off locations for their children, with little or no notice. Washington Principal Denice Oliver said it would be a "nightmare" to revert to those days at her school, where she said more than 2,000 requests were received during a single school year for busing changes prior to the stricter policy being adopted.

    Oliver said her top priority is safety for the district's youngest students. "Kindergartners are not independent; our teachers literally walk them to their buses every single day of the week," she said. "Back then, the drivers didn't know who was supposed to be on their bus or not. Imagine how confusing and scary it can be for a kindergartner. ...We need to get each child where they need to go. Having it the way it was back then, to me, was not safe."

    As various horror stories were recalled from the days prior to the busing policy change, Davidson returned to a similar refrain: No one is saying that the policy needs to be changed back to the way it was prior to 2010. But, he added several times during the committee's conversation, if the policy can be tweaked so that families who give enough notice when requesting a change get their changes granted, it might be enough to keep some families from open enrolling. And that would bring more money into the district, Davidson said, stressing that losing one student for 12 years to another district costs the district around $104,000 in lost state funding. "If you stop and think that we have an outflow of more than 100 kids a day, that's a million dollars a year," Davidson said. "Obviously, nothing we do is going to get all those people back, but if we can make a significant reduction in that number or even just decrease it just a little bit, the changes will pay off."

    The state education funding that would stay in the district as a result of a more family-friendly busing policy would probably be enough to fund a part-time transportation secretary if need be, Davidson added, if it's determined that Niemela needs someone to be in charge of busing requests and schedules on a daily basis. Right now, Niemela is pretty much on his own, and he often finds himself having to get behind the wheel of a bus himself.

    Davidson said he believes that if a specific advance notice guideline is established, with no wiggle room, Niemela or anyone else who deals with transportation issues wouldn’t have to worry about discriminating against anyone. Either a family's request is within the modified policy's parameters, Davidson said, or it's not. "I'm not saying we can meet every single individual need, but we need to do more than we're doing," Davidson said. "It seems to me we can create a policy that can deal with the concerns over last-minute calls. At some point, a point that we establish, our answer will be no."

    The revamped policy should be based on "controlled flexibility," he added. "We can create something that's more flexible than we have now but isn't as chaotic as it used to be, because obviously some of that stuff was crazy," Davidson said. "We can create an environment where we will retain some kids that we might have lost otherwise."