School district amends bus policy

The Waterloo School Board on Monday night took steps to amend the district’s student transportation  policy, offering a more flexible option than the strict “home-to-school, school-to-home” course of action initially set to begin this fall.

By a unanimous 7-0 vote, the board approved the first reading of an amended policy that allows bus-eligible students to be dropped off at another location other than home — as long as that location is along an already established bus route in the district and is 1.5 miles or more from the school.

The option of having students dropped off at the home of a relative or neighbor will now be offered, which some parents said was much more safe because otherwise many students would be going to empty homes until the typical household work day was done.

“The home-to-school, school-to-home policy did not give families any flexibility for bus-eligible students,” said Leanna Stechmesser, a district parent who served on a committee formed by the school board to look into the issue. “If that policy passed, we would have had very young children going home to an empty house at the end of their school day.”

She said that with the amended policy, parents now have the option of sending their kids to an alternate location.

“They did the right thing, and that was to vote for the safety of our children,” Stechmesser said of the school board’s decision Monday. “That was our goal all along. I would like to personally thank each board member for voting in favor of the newly amended policy.”

A decrease in state funding for public school transportation, combined with instructions from the Illinois State Board of Education on this matter, led to the school board initially deciding to implement the home-to-school and school-to-home policy for the 2013-14 school year.

This didn’t sit well with several parents, who made their frustrations known during public meetings held in the spring.

At the suggestion of school board member Dwight Schaefer, a parent committee was formed to work with the board’s transportation committee and Waterloo School Superintendent Jim Helton to see if there were other workable options.

Board members also held further conversations with ISBE to get clarification on bus eligibility and regular bus routes.

“The caveat with ISBE was our policy and our practice had to match,” Helton explained. “In the past, when we delivered to child care locations (out of a service to parents) that didn’t match the current policy eligibility criteria of a residence that was 1.5 miles or more from the school, or where it had been pre-determined to be a hazard zone.”

By adding the child care portion to its district policy, it matches “policy to practice,” Helton said. ISBE further elaborated the district is not mandated to go off its regular routes to deliver to child care locations.

“We do have a little flexibility,” Helton said while adding there is also an unknown cost component of implementing the amended policy.

“There is an unpredicted cost. As the district continues to battle the fiscal challenges, we are very cognizant of increased costs,” Helton said.

Addressing the board prior to its vote on Monday, Stechmesser stressed that “there comes a point in time when moral values need to trump the almighty dollar, and now is one of those times.”

Board member Johnny Caupert said that, in addition to a “sense of comfort” for working parents, the district should now be able to obtain hard statistical data on the fiscal sustainability of its transportation policy.

Several commercial daycare facilities in Waterloo fall within the 1.5-mile radius of schools, therefore they are not considered to be bus-eligible locations.

Board member Sue Sweet said it is her hope that local daycare facilities will use their own buses to transport kids to and from school.

Helton said a school latchkey program, Kennel Klub, which currently serves students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade, will still be offered as an after-school care option as well.

Board approval of the second reading of this amended bus policy will make it official.

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Corey Saathoff

Corey is the editor of the Republic-Times. He has worked at the newspaper since 2004, and currently resides in Columbia. He is also the principal singer-songwriter and plays guitar in St. Louis area country-rock band The Trophy Mules.
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