Mehlville board decides to reinstate pre-school buses, keep 4-tier route

By BURKE WASSON

The Mehlville School District Board of Education has approved reinstating bus stops at day-care centers within the district, but a substitute amendment to restore busing up to its 2005-06 levels was voted down.

During its June 14 meeting, the board voted 5-0 to reinstate busing to day-care centers. Cindy Christopher and Rita Diekemper, both board members, were each absent from the meeting and did not vote. District administrators had recommended the reinstatement of the bus stops at day-care centers, which would cost an estimated $92,259.77, according to information prepared by Director of Transportation Keith Henry.

But before that vote, Board Vice President Karl Frank Jr. made a motion to amend the bill to reinstate bus stops to day-care centers by proposing that the district not go forward with a four-tier bus schedule that was approved April 19. The motion was seconded by board member Tom Diehl.

“I move that we reinstate busing and tiers to 2005-06 levels and do a more thorough review of the streamlining option for subsequent years,” Frank said at the meeting.

Frank’s motion then failed 3-2, with Board President Ken Leach, Board Secretary Tom Correnti and board member Micheal Ocello voting no and Frank and Diehl voting in favor of restoring bus levels.

When the board voted April 19 to reinstate free bus transportation to all students for the coming school year, it also approved a motion to streamline existing bus routes, which was slated to result in a projected savings of $350,000. Now with the added cost of $92,259.77 to reinstate busing to day-care centers, those savings will be cut to an estimated $257,740.23.

The new bus schedule that the board approved April 19 will save money for the 2006-07 school year by having fewer bus stops, longer walks for students to bus stops and a four-tier bus schedule instead of the current three-tier schedule that also will require a change in starting and dismissal times at some schools.

But board members are split on whether saving those funds is worth the effects of the new four-tier bus schedule, which prompted Correnti to question Frank’s motion as soon as he made it and also suggest that his motion to amend the transportation bill be tabled.

“So you want it (the busing schedule) to go all the way back as if nothing had ever occurred?” Correnti asked Frank.

“Well, the real reason for cutting everything was financial,” Frank said. “And so there’s really no other reasons given at that time. So if there are other reasons, I say they should be heard.”

“Well, I say we table this whole thing until the full board is back,” Correnti said. “I say this should be tabled until all seven members can equally vote on this — this highly profiled issue.”

During discussions June 14 about restoring the bus schedule to its 2005-06 levels, the issue of the district enjoying a larger budget than it had first anticipated was used on both sides of the argument.

During a May 3 budget workshop session, Chief Financial Officer Stephen Keyser presented revised projections to the board, including a forecast of additional revenue of $1.34 million — $867,000 more than originally anticipated. In addition, the projected deficit of $2 million was revised to $1.2 million.

Based on initial revenue and expenditure projections and after the defeat of Proposition A, a proposed 97-cent tax-rate increase in February, the administration earlier this year had recommended a target of $4 million in cuts be made for the coming school year, including the March decision to begin charging $375 per student for bus transportation for those who live within 3.5 miles of their school. That decision was overturned April 19.

But with the added revenue in the district’s budget, board members were split at their last meeting as to whether those funds should be used on busing.

Diehl, who supported Frank’s amendment to restore busing to the previous school year’s levels, said he has concerns about the energy levels of both students and parents having to cope with earlier times to arrive at day-care centers before school.

“If you’re a working parent and you take your child to a day-care center at 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning because you have to drop them off at that time because you have to be at work at 8 o’clock, those children have to be up that much earlier,” Diehl said. “And you know, their energy level burns out by the time you get them in the afternoon class.”

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources A.D. McClain pointed out that even though students will be awake earlier in some cases, their actual amount of hours for school days and in the classroom will not change.

“It’s a matter of convenience, which is certainly understandable,” McClain said. “If you want to go to a three-tier system, we’re going to go back to a system of transportation in which we’re not saving money. If that’s the board’s prerogative, that’s what we’ll do.”

Diehl further illustrated that would be his choice by saying that because the district has more money than initially believed, restoring busing levels would be one of his top priorities.

“I have a problem with the whole idea of the cutting out of busing altogether,” Diehl said. “Charging for busing, again, was presented as a situation of: ‘We can’t afford it because this is what kind of budget we’re anticipating.’ We came out with additional money as far as state revenue. I remember that. We had the changes as far as personnel and everything else. I made this request about reinstituting the day care before you announced that we have an additional $1.4 million that we have to figure out where it should be allocated. I think it does make a difference in the quality of education. It makes a difference in the lives of the parents that we’re supposed to be serving. And I just believe that if we need to make changes in our transportation system, it should be done in a way in which we have time for parents to evaluate the situation, to respond to the situation and not be done as part of: ‘Well, you voted against Prop A, and so we’re going to do this.’ We have to realize that we are serving the community. We’re serving the children and we’re serving their parents. And I just think that if we want to do some changes, let’s take some time to look at it and explore the options. But I think for this coming school year, we need to consider who it is that we’re here to serve.”

While he said he is also considering who he serves in the district, Ocello said he believes the district’s funds can be better spent than on restoring busing levels. One change he would like to see would be to hire a nurse in each school in the Mehlville district.

“In a recent discussion, it was brought to my attention that we have schools that have no nurses in them,” Ocello said. “And we have all sorts of students out there that have medical issues that are potentially life threatening. And we have, in some cases, a parent sitting in. That could mean the difference between a child getting quality medical care or not. In a first-responder situation, that may make the difference of whether that child’s alright. . . If we’re going to talk about spending our money, I’m fine with that. I’m not saying we have to spend a certain level, but every dollar we spend is a dollar that we can’t spend somewhere else. And from my perspective, if I had a choice between making sure we had a nurse in every school versus changing our buses back to a three-tier system instead of doing this, I’d rather put the nurses in the classroom.”