Decision Time is Coming!

November is a big month form District 281 with STEAM and contracting out the bus service on the agenda as reported in the sun post;

Decision time is nearly at hand in Robbinsdale District 281. The District 281 School Board continued consideration of budget adjustments for 2012-13 at an Oct. 10 work session. According to Jeff Priess, District 281’s executive director of business services, at least two of the items under consideration will require decisions in November, including:

– Contracting bus transportation services, for a savings of between $800,000 and $1 million per year.

– Opening a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) magnet school in the fall of 2012 in which one-third of the enrolling students would be non-residents. The $2.17 million expenditure would be partially offset by $1.25 million in open-enrollment revenue.

Yes one-third of the students MUST come from students not currently enrolled in District 281!  That’s THEIR words not ours, though we will probably get blamed.

An alternate option to contracting out bus transportation services now under consideration is to keep the system in-house and make changes, Priess said, adding that the district has studied seven different models and identified between $150,000 and $250,000 in annual savings that could be made in the present in-house system. “We would go after eliminating overtime,” Preiss said. An optimum model, one that would provide the most savings, would be a split shift system, which would impact full-time drivers, Priess said. “We will keep looking at efficiencies in the system,” he said. “There are more things we can do to make the total system more efficient.”

Quite frankly, these things should have been done by now.  Studying seven models?  How many models do we need to study to cut back on overtime?

Board Chair Barb Van Heel said feedback she has received from the community indicates that quality is a concern. “Is there a way to measure quality through turnover of drivers, how often they have substitutes, whether the buses are on time?” Van Heel said. “What is the longevity of our drivers? Do they stay on the same route and develop relationships with the kids?” Boardmember Tom Walsh questioned benefits for part-time drivers, noting that if the service were to be contracted out, drivers would not receive any benefits. “Should part-time drivers be getting reduced benefits, or no benefits?” Walsh said. Boardmember Patsy Green said, “I really struggle with this.” She noted that contract drivers are paid less than District 281’s salaried drivers.

“Our bus drivers’ rates have gotten higher than what’s now out there,” Green said. “But the benefit of having our own bus drivers is the relationships that are intangible and hard to measure. I would like to see a lot of work done on the contract before we have to make a decision.”

The current bus driver-custodian union contract in District 281 expired June 30, 2011. Negotiations are in progress between union representatives and school district officials on that contract, as well as the other five union contracts that expired June 30, 2011. The current contracts stay in effect until new contract settlements are reached.

We aren’t wild about contracting out the busing.  Again we think the best way to save money in the long run in through reforming the pension system like the private sector has.  What we are spending on employee benefits is not sustainable.

“We can’t make a decision until we hear more about contract negotiations and what the possible savings are,” Walsh said. Stephanie Crosby, District 281’s executive director for human resources, said it will take “several times at the table” to discuss some of the issues during contract negotiations. “I hope to get at least an idea where we are within six to eight weeks,” Crosby said.

Well at least we don’t have the stupid pro-union January 15 deadline to worry about.

Robbinsdale Area Schools is one of six large metro-area districts that own and operate their own buses. The district now owns 105 buses and leases five small buses that deliver students to and from school via 74 regular education routes and 17 special education routes. The district also contracts with an outside company for an additional 59 routes. The Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina, Richfield, and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan districts also operate their own bus fleets.

Most other area districts rely wholly on contracted services to bus students to school. Priess said earlier that District 281 now spends $4.8 million on non-contracted services, and $3.9 million on contracted services. If the busing were contracted out, the contractor would lease the buses and the district’s garage at 4148 Winnetka Ave. N., New Hope.

The district currently has 135 transportation employees, including full- or part-time bus drivers, bus assistants and mechanics. Not all of them drive buses all day long. Twenty-seven of the employees are full-time bus drivers/custodians; 90 are part-time drivers. Full-time bus drivers/custodians earn about $20 per hour. Part-time drivers earn about $17 per hour. Contractors generally pay between $12 and $17 per hour.

Lori Simon, executive director of educational services, said a decision on whether to open a STEAM magnet school is needed in November, so a committee could work on development of programs for 2012-13, if the STEAM school is approved by the school board. A decision on whether to open a STEAM magnet school is expected to be made at the Nov. 21 School Board meeting. “Obviously, we’re recommending it,” Superintendent Aldo Sicoli said. “We think it would be a good thing for our district and our families.”

What’s the over/under on whether there is a dissenting vote?

Sicoli added that “Forest [elementary] is bursting at the seams, and our other school are very full. It would help to open another school.” The new Forest School, built with a program capacity of 600 students, now has an enrollment of 680 students, Beekman said. “There are no empty classrooms at Forest,” Beekman said. Options under consideration include building temporary space, renting space or redoing the elementary school boundaries, Sicoli said.

Boardmember Linda Johnson said the biggest concern she has heard is how a new magnet school would look in terms of demographics and student makeup. “Some type of affirmative statement is important for the community,” Johnson said. “I would like to see a policy so that the demographics [at a new magnet school] are fairly close to the district before we make a decision on STEAM.” Boardmember Helen Bassett said, “There is a perception that we have special schools in our district, when we should be beefing up for everybody. Who gets the benefit, and at what cost?”

Affirmative statement? Though we share the concern over creating another “special school” as Helen Bassett  puts it, we are adamantly against any kind of affirmative action.  If we want more students of color in the program, then we need to get more minority families to APPLY!  The more strings you attach to a lottery, the less it is a lottery.

Simon agreed that it would be essential to have active recruitment of students for a new magnet school, inform families about the new program, and get the word out early. Sherry Tyrrell said she believes a new magnet school would enhance what the district already offers. “It would be an investment in our community and the rest of our schools,” Tyrrell said.

Expansion of the district’s Spanish Immersion program to both middle schools, at a cost of $36,000, is still under consideration. Currently, about one-third of Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion fifth-graders drop the Spanish program when they move to middle school, according to Dennis Beekman, District 281’s executive director of technology. A committee is discussing ways to restructure the middle school day so that time is used more efficiently, Sicoli said.

How many committees do we have????

Abolishing study halls is being discussed, as well as “double-dosing” on math and reading. “We think this is really a high priority,” Sicoli said. “We want more instructional time and assistance for students who need it.”  The ongoing cost would be significant, about $575,000, Sicoli said. Another large, albeit one-time cost, would come if the district adopts an online learning proposal, at a cost of $429,000. “I’m not sure we have the money to do it,” Sicoli said. “We can’t do all of this. STEAM has more benefit.”

Though we don’t like STEAM (we’d prefer the “school within a school” option rather than opening a new school) or contracting our the busing, we have to say that more on-line opportunities is an interesting option and may be the wave of the future.  Perhaps that is worth cost but we don’t have enough information on it to endorse it.  Either way, November will be an interesting month so stay tuned!

2 Responses to “Decision Time is Coming!”

  1. numbersguy Says:

    It is VERY important to voice your opinion to ALL School Board members ASAP. Come on this Wednesday (11/9/2011) from 6:00 – 6:45 pm for their monthly listening session (see link . The more “We the people” let them know our opinion the better the decision!!!!!! If you can stay for the regular Board meeting even better!!

  2. Jamie Johnson Says:

    With the horrible event that took place recently with a contracted Metro Transit ex-employee, my children will not be riding busses with anyone other than district 281 employee. The districts bus drivers are known within the community, they are our neighbors, friends, their children have gone to this district. They care more than these lower paid contracted out drivers. And let me ask you when did it become about money & not our children. Our children need to be number one. Isn’t it the case if you don’t use the money you lose it so where would this so called saved money go to? Hopefully not the top dogs pockets!

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