Status quo that allows for only one stop is unacceptable to many families, he says.
When the Crookston School Board's Transportation Policy Committee met for the second time in a week on Wednesday – after it was agreed after the first meeting that administrators would put their heads together before the second meeting to see if they could come up with a somewhat more flexible busing policy – it appeared that board member Dave Davidson, who's spearheading the push for a policy modification, expected to be presented with options for a more flexible busing system.
But when Transportation/Buildings and Grounds Director Rick Niemela, after disseminating a single-sheet document that detailed bus ridership, routes and other busing data, recommended the policy not be changed "unless we can come up with a different plan," Davidson said he feels the status quo is unacceptable.
"Not changing anything is going to be unacceptable to the people who are talking to me," Davidson said in the meeting that took place in the school district office conference room at Crookston High School.
As part of a larger discussion about the district's open enrollment problem, Davidson earlier this month spurred the conversation on the busing policy after he said some parents had told him that the primary reason they open-enrolled their kids to the Fisher School was the Crookston district's rigid busing policy. He has said he's not necessarily trying to convince any families who are open enrolling to return to Crookston schools, but Davidson has also stressed that he is trying to send a message to families who might open enroll their kids that the local district is trying to serve them better.
Current policy allows only one pick-up and drop-off location for students. So, in a hypothetical example, if a student goes to the wellness program at the swimming pool every Tuesday and Thursday and goes home after school on the other three days of the week, the busing policy as it is currently written does not accommodate that student. The same goes for students with divorced parents in a joint custody situation; if the court has ordered that a child be with one parent certain days of the week and the other parent on the other days of the week, the bus will not drop the child off at the parents' different addresses.
"So if a family said they could set it up for the whole school year, with the same days at mom's house and the same days at dad's, we can't do that?" Davidson asked Niemela.
"Not under the current policy," he responded. "They get one stop; the parents have to figure it out."
"Wow," Davidson replied. "Then our current policy is flawed."
Students in divorced families are one thing, he continued, but it's another thing for the district to not drive kids to a swimming-based wellness program at a facility the school district owns. "I think it's important for us to at least be able to drop off kids at the programs we offer," Davidson said. "If we have a wellness program at the pool and the kids can't get there because we don't offer the transportation, that doesn't make any sense.
"There has to be a way that we can hear from parents who can provide a consistent schedule with plenty of notice that allows for more than one drop-off place per week," he continued.
Niemela is studying busing software programs that would add a technological component to the bus schedule. When the committee meets again Oct. 9, he's expected to demonstrate how the software works. Also, between now and that meeting, Business Manager Laura Lyczewski is going to reach out to similar-sized school districts in rural Minnesota to see what types of busing policies they practice.
"Our one-stop policy would be a lot easier to defend if lots of other comparable districts had similar policies," Davidson said.
Superintendent Chris Bates said it's mostly about trying to find a balance between flexibility and chaos. "I don't think anyone wants to create a nightmare, but how feasible is it to say people could go to two different places, so that maybe we cover the wellness program and split families?" he said. "The next question would be what sort of time guideline would be needed? A month ahead of time? Or does that create chaos?"
Simply put, Niemela said busing kids to and from school these days is a lot more complicated than it was 20 years ago.
"You want to accommodate, but the more you accommodate the more room you allow for error," Bates added.