Despite the insistence that the Sun Prairie Area School District is providing equitable bus service, one resident and at least one board member weren’t buying the sales pitch during the Monday, July 12 Sun Prairie School Board meeting.
School board members were given data on district busing statistics, SPASD activity buses, summer school busing, the reduced distance for walking in the SPASD, as well as busing costs in Sun Prairie compared with from other Dane County school districts.
Activity Bus — At a cost of $125,000, the district-supplied activity bus provides transportation for students in after school athletics and clubs at secondary schools.
During remarks at the board meeting, SPASD Director of Business and Finance Phil Frei said the service gives students, who don’t have a means to get home, the opportunity to participate in afterschool activities.
Activity Buses run every day between 4:15 — 4:38 p.m. (one at Prairie View Middle School, two at Patrick Marsh Middle School, and two at CHUMS along with one at Sun Prairie High School), with routes changing daily based on riders. In southern Wisconsin, only 9 districts out of 30 offer activity buses.
Summer School Busing — Pointing out the state does not require districts to provide summer school busing, Frei said just 6 of 30 southern Wisconsin school districts offer door-to-door transportation for summer school like the SPASD offers. The district spends $120,000 per year for summer school busing.
Shuttling eliminated — Frei said the district eliminated so-called “shuttling” of students in 2017. Before 2017, SPASD students who moved into the district would get shuttled to another elementary school if their grade was “full” at their boundary area school.
Friei said the practice had a direct and adverse impact on students who were housing insecure and led the SPASD to stop the transportation. Instead, class sizes are increased or another teacher is hired and students are distributed between the grade level classrooms at that school.
Overall spending — The SPASD spent $535 per student on busing, or 3.77% of its operating expense for busing, according to school district data.
Reduced distance for walking — In 2013, SPASD electors chose to reduce the transportation distance from 2 to 1.5 miles for secondary school students (before that time, the distance was more than two miles). The main reason for reducing the distance was to provide transportation to more families struggling to transport their children to Sun Prairie schools. The action added 11 bus routes at an estimated cost of $430,000 in 2013 dollars.
But one resident wrote in the July 12 board’s Public Comment that she didn’t think the district was acting equitably in terms of busing.
“I previewed the slides for this presentation but didn’t notice any ways where the district has done anything specific for any students to make sure busing is equitable within our district,” parent Tracy Frank wrote. “I just noticed comparisons with other districts.”
Frank recalled in the winter of 2018-19 talking with her neighbor who also had noticed kids walking from The Element apartments. The neighbor said he knew one of the families.
“He checked in and found out that these kids did not have access to a ride to school,” Frank wrote. “I also contacted the principal of Prairie View and she said it was a significant concern and that these students did not qualify for busing because they are just inside the required 1.5-mile boundary.”
“I also spoke with school board members, and since it was the middle of the year, it didn’t seem like anything could happen immediately. However, Marilyn [Ruffin, former school board member] shared her concern and asked how she could help. So, several of us, including Marilyn, my neighbor, myself and the middle school principal, completed the district paperwork to be approved drivers and set up a rotating schedule to pick up students daily from The Element,” Frank added. “It was my assumption at that time, that this would be addressed going forward.”
But after reading the busing equity report, Frank checked up on The Element kids.
“I contacted the principal and she said that she was still shuttling students to school and that she has continued to request busing for these students, but the request has not been met,” Frank wrote in her public comment. “This is very concerning because this sounds like in fact Sun Prairie believes in equality in busing but not equity in busing.
“Equity in busing would mean you make an exception to the rule when you have this situation: a group of students who are right on the border and are less likely to have as many transportation options,” Frank added.
“Equity in busing means you provide busing transportation for the students who live in The Element community, are 1.4 miles from Prairie View Middle School and currently not receiving busing services,” Frank wrote. “In bringing this to your attention, I trust that equity in busing will be considered in this situation and that the district will remedy this before the 2021-22 school year begins.”
Board member Alwyn Foster asked about other students who have issues getting to school, and if their location is outside the 1- or 1.5-mile limit, what arrangements are made in those instances?
Frei said the district measures the distance and if the student resides inside the 1.5-mile boundary a social workers may provide City of Sun Prairie rideshare taxi vouchers to students as a short-term solution.
Foster asked whether the vouchers could be provided for the entire school year. Frei replied no, vouchers are only designed as temporary solutions until a permanent transportation solution for the student may be set up.
Foster also asked if options were available where arrangements have specifically been made for busing.
Frei said he would have to ask elementary and secondary principals, because he is not sure about what might happen when vouchers were exhausted.
Foster also asked what might happen if a group of parents, perhaps 10, wanted to pay for busing, and whether or not the district uses vans for that.
“We do not use vans for that,” Frei replied. He said some neighborhoods have contracted directly with Kobussen Bus Company, but that is expensive.
Foster asked whether or not the SPASD has split the cost, and Frei said no. “That’s not something the district typically steps in for,” Frei added.
“If we are going to put equity at the front of this sentence, there has to be a way for us to make it happen so that it is equity for everybody,” Foster said.
While being questioned by Board Governance Officer Tom Weber, Frei pointed out that school district electors have the authority to change busing distances. Weber emphasized the school board does not have that ability.
But Weber also wondered whether the SPASD has talked with the Sun Prairie Transit Commission about the possibility of using rideshare cabs to better service the district (see “Transit Commission lukewarm on expanding shared-ride taxi boundaries,” July 2).
Frei replied that Rhonda Page sits on the commission. But he also pointed out that most cities the size of Sun Prairie have in-city busing.
“It’s fairly unique for a city our size not to have in-city busing,” Frei said, adding that if that came into the city, that would also change how SPASD provides busing.
“I completely understand some of the comments we’ve had,” Weber said. But he also said it doesn’t make sense that some neighborhoods that need student transportation to public schools can’t access it, but the SPASD is required by law to bus parochial students to private schools located in the district.
“Equity is a community-wide responsibility,” Weber said, adding that the SPASD needs to build on its relationship with the city to help solve the transportation issue.