October 22, 2013

In a 4-3 vote at last week's school board meeting, Coon Rapids-Bayard school officials gave Glidden-Ralston bus drivers a Jan. 6, 2014 deadline to stop picking up open-enrolled students living within the Coon Rapids-Bayard district.

"It's not in the best interest of our district," Coon Rapids-Bayard superintendent Rich Stoffers said of the busing practice. He estimated that the Glidden-Ralston bus had been picking up students living between a quarter mile and a mile and a half across the district line.

Stoffers brought the issue to the board's attention at the beginning of the school year in response to a newly enforced Heartland Area Education Agency requirement that any districts with overlapping bus routes must submit a written agreement for approval.

According to Glidden-Ralston superintendent Rob Olsen, the single bus in question has been picking up open-enrolled students within the neighboring district for years. Olsen said that prior superintendents recalled discussions on the route, but there is no formal documentation.

"As far as I can tell ... it's at least a generation that it has been going on," he said.

According to Stoffers, the Coon Rapids-Bayard district "never signed off" on allowing another district's buses to travel through its territory. He said the practice was "not ethical" and "not legal" and could lead to future issues regarding bus routes with other neighboring districts. His predecessors also did not recall any such agreement, he added.

"Sometimes districts do agree to special circumstances," he said. "Here there was an assumption that it was OK, and the practice got out-of-hand."

Stoffers said it makes the decision for a family interested in attending the Glidden-Ralston district "very easy" if the other district's buses will go "right to the doorstep." Though sales tax funding is determined by enrollment, with a district receiving about $6,000 per student, Stoffers said, the board's decision was not about money.

According to Olsen, 14 students currently open-enroll from Coon Rapids-Bayard to Glidden-Ralston, and one student open-enrolls from Glidden-Ralston to Coon Rapids-Bayard. According to Stoffers, nine open-enrolled students from five families ride the Glidden-Ralston bus. After speaking with the parents, Olsen said, none of the students will stop attending Glidden-Ralston due to the route change. The students can still ride a Glidden-Ralston bus to school, but they must be transported to a stop within the edge of the Glidden-Ralston district, said Stoffers.

Olsen would have preferred that families affected been given until the end of the school year to make alternative travel arrangements for the students. The three Coon Rapids-Bayard board members who voted against the issue also preferred a June deadline, but ultimately the board determined that the remaining months of the fall semester is enough time. Paula Vincent, Heartland Area Education Agency-11 director, agreed, calling the January time frame "reasonable."

The law prohibiting buses from picking up students in neighboring districts without an agreement was incorporated into the Iowa code when open-enrollment was first allowed, said Vincent. Oversight authority was given to the area education agencies, but "different administrators handle situations differently," she added.

Olsen said that last year was the first year the agency required written agreements, but it wasn't strict about enforcing the policy until this year. Even so, Olsen said, he does not fully understand why the matter is suddenly an issue with Coon-Rapids Bayard, though he understands the desire to protect district boundaries.

According to Stoffers, parents could take legal action to appeal the board's decision. Legal action could also be taken by the board to enforce the deadline. However, based on his correspondence with Olsen, Stoffers said he doesn't believe either course will be necessary.

According to agency data, of the 53 school districts in Iowa, 12 currently have approved plans for buses to overlap district boundaries to make routes more efficient. More are pending, and will go before the board of directors in November.