During the public comment period of the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board’s regular business meeting on Thursday, May 26th, several parents of students enrolled in the Gifted and Talented program (GATE) expressed concern that revisions to current routes could mean that busing options to and from GATE, which is housed in the Stillwater Area Middle School, would be eliminated for students on the district’s southside.

In their prepared statements, parents mentioned an email sent out by Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt informing families of the possible change and nearly all the parents framed the loss of those routes as an equity issue since the change would have a greater impact on southside families.

Anna Zanko, parent of a GATE student said that the GATE program has been incorrectly defined as a choice program since students who participate are identified by the district and offered a spot as opposed to applying.

“If busing is cut for the GATE program in the southern part of the district, it’s inevitable that kids will not be able to participate in GATE, because they can’t get there to the program, or their parents work does not allow them to transport them,” Zanko said.

Cami Kirksson also claimed the decision disproportionately affects southside students and asked the board to consider specifically how families who may already be wrestling with ways to balance work, childcare and transportation would be impacted. “If a kid tests into GATE, let’s not hold them back. Give those kids a bus and let them thrive,” Kirksson said.

Hattie Williams said that it was likely that, if busing is not an option for her family, the GATE program would no longer be feasible for her child. “Participation or attendance should not be skewed based on where (students) live,” Williams told the board. “By taking away transportation for some GATE students, you are not just changing how they get to or from school, you are potentially eliminating their best chance to reach their full potential.”

Transportation update

Director of Operations Mark Drommerhausen opened his scheduled transportation update to the board by reiterating the district’s commitment to deliver safe, reliable and consistent service for students and families, to address the driver shortage and to see that the number of routes is returned to pre-pandemic levels.

In an effort to increase staff, Drommerhausen reported, Schmitty & Sons has held three open houses with the interest of filling driver and other staff positions, which were attended by more than 100 perspective employees.

Regarding the issue of busing for southside GATE students, Drommerhausen said that there are options being considered. One potential solution was a hub system where GATE students would be picked up at their local elementary school instead of a bus stop. From there, students would be transported to Stillwater Area Middle School on the middle school bus.

Such a plan would likely mean ride times for GATE students in the morning and afternoons would be around 50 minutes.

Board member Pete Kelzenberg, who also works as a substitute bus driver, noted that the location of the bus garage on the southside could, potentially hold a solution since drivers on the middle school routes could leave earlier to pick up GATE students. “They could make a swing through the south before they head up north,” he said. However, district officials pointed out that this would only provide a partial solution, covering morning routes but leaving the question of afternoon routes unaddressed.

When discussing the issue of route access for GATE families, the issues of and hazardous roadways appeared to be twin sticking points. The current transportation plan for the district extends the high school zone from one mile to two miles. Elementary school zones would continue at .5 miles. Much of the discussion on Thursday night revolved around adjusting the middle school zone, which is currently one mile.

Keeping it at one mile would mean that the district would not be able to provide transportation for GATE and Dual Language Spanish Immersion students. Board members asked Drommerhausen about the possibility of extending the middle school zones to 1.5 or possibly two miles and asked whether expanding the middle school zone could free up resources and allow the district to maintain current busing for GATE students.

The efficacy of expanding zones for middle schools appeared to be somewhat undercut by the fact that, Oak-Land Middle School, because of its proximity to Manning Ave., which is considered a hazardous road.

Regarding the proximity of Manning Ave., Board member Bev Petrie asked how changing the transportation radius for the middle schools would affect busing there.

Drommerhausen noted that Oak-Land, because if safety concerns posed by nearby roads, would be considered to be an “all transportation zone” so would effectively have a radius of zero no matter what changes were made.

Board response

Board members voiced opposition to cutting routes for GATE families, and their remarks were largely in the interest of finding a way to keep GATE busing, while still saving costs, and keeping transportation options safe for students.

Board member Annie Porbeni reiterated what many of the GATE parents said in their remarks to the Board. “If we decide to not provide the opportunity for some of these students, those inequalities will be real,” she said.

Porbeni pointed out that, if the district could not provide transportation then some students may get into the program but would be unable to take advantage of the opportunity.

“There you’re skewing the process of who should get in and who shouldn’t,” she said.

“Not providing transportation for GATE is a dealbreaker for me,” Board member Tina Riehle said. “It’s already an under-utilized program.”

“The limiting factor is buses,” Board member Vivian Votava said. “It’s not that we don’t want to provide busing, it’s that we can’t provide busing. The buses aren’t there.”

Board member Katie Hockert noted that, “this discussion has evolved since our first work sessions.” She described the process as beginning with a question of how to save costs and moving to one of equity for special programs.

“Do we need a policy change in including those special programs in the policy itself?” Hockert asked.

Because the discussion was part of a scheduled update, not formal action was taken, and the Board did not vote. However, Board Chairperson Alison Sherman asked the Board if there were any objections to the two-mile radius for the high school, and there were none.

She noted that before the board could decide on middle school transportation zone limits, they might need more detailed information about what the impacts of such decisions would be, noting that, in the end, the solution may come in the form of more buses. “Come July, hopefully it gets better, because with every bus we get the busing gets better.”

In other business

The board voted unanimously to approve a 20-cent increase for the school nutrition program. Explaining the reasons for that increase, Drommerhausen noted that higher reimbursement rates tied to the free meals program that was part of the federal government’s COVID relief package, are set to expire going into the next school year. As that happens, costs of providing means are also going up due to inflation, necessitating the rate increase.

The board also voted to approve OneBridge as the new vendor and trustee for employee VEBA/Health Reimbursement accounts. The change was necessary because the former carrier can no longer provide that type of coverage for employees.

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