Rochester Schools abandon plan to use city buses

January 10, 2019
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The Rochester school district dropped plans to study using Rochester city buses to transport secondary students to school.

The idea, introduced last spring, was proposed as a way to set up later start times for students and potentially save the district and city money. Early study of the plan showed it would instead likely add millions more to transportation costs.

Superintendent Michael Muñoz indicated during a board meeting last month that preliminary numbers put the plan in doubt. During the first board meeting of the year Tuesday, Muñoz gave his official recommendation to abandon the plan.

Currently, the district runs a two-tiered start system to rotate district-run buses. The district’s middle- and high-school students start classes between 7:40 and 8 a.m., while elementary classes start shortly after 9 a.m.

The school-city shared plan called for the district to use city transit services to bus middle and high school students in a one-tier system. Preliminary estimates called for the district to pay the city about $560,000 for the service. However, the elimination of some secondary bus routes would double the district’s special education transportation routes, said Scott Sherden, district executive director of operations.

Those costs, and the cost to run bus routes for elementary students, would make switching to a city-shared, one-tier system cost about $6 million more than the district will pay for transportation this year, said John Carlson, district executive director of finance.

State funding allows for reimbursement of special education cost increases but caps that growth at 4.6 percent, he added.

“We’re not going to get anywhere near where it’s going to cost,” Carlson said.

Board member Mark Schleusner asked how other districts have made the switch and why the district would ask the city to halt a study on the plan.

Muñoz said he wasn’t sure about the logistics other districts faced in implementing a city-shared busing system. However, he said the district had an obligation to tell the city not to use resources studying a plan that won’t come to fruition in the immediate future.

“Ethically, I don’t think we should ask them to do that since we know we’ll no longer be a player in that,” Muñoz said.

The Rochester district covers 218 square miles — larger than other Minnesota districts with a similar number of students, district officials noted. Muñoz said the district will have five-year transportation plans to present to the board in February.

Schleusner noted studies that show later start times improve student performance and safety.

“Do we really want to give up on later start times for five years?” he asked.

Outgoing board chairwoman Jean Marvin, also a proponent of later start times, called the news “disappointing,” but added she couldn’t support a plan that cost millions more than current alternatives.

Board member Cathy Nathan said the push to later start times is also coming from state lawmakers. The logistics and costs Rochester faces could be a cautionary tale for legislators who might be tempted to introduce statewide mandates for later start times.

“This information will be very helpful when speaking to our legislators,” Nathan said. “The movement (to later start times) is not going to stop.”

In other business, the board approved a draft of a districtwide survey about facility needs. The survey outlines the reasons the district might pursue a bond referendum later this year.

The survey outlines the case for building a 720-student capacity elementary school in the city’s northwest quadrant; building 720-student capacity schools at the sites of Longfellow and Bishop elementary schools; building a new middle school and making safety and entrance improvements on other buildings for an estimated $163 million.

The survey also covers other projects, including a new school at the site of Churchill Elementary School, renovating the high school pools, closing the middle school pools and buying land for future school building projects in addition to the other projects outlined in the survey for an estimated $219.4 million.

The survey will go to all residents in the Rochester school district and should arrive in early February.

District officials also seated two new board members Tuesday. Melissa Amundsen and Cathy Nathan were sworn into office along with re-elected board members Julie Workman and former board chairwoman Jean Marvin.

Don Barlow, vice chairman of the board, was appointed chairman of the board effective at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. Deborah Seelinger was named vice chairwoman. Nathan was appointed board clerk and Mark Schleusner was appointed board treasurer.

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