Shawano schools, Kobussen dealing with policy glitches

Parents complaining of fewer stops, safety concerns
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski One bus unloads students at Shawano Community Middle School on Friday while another bus pulls into the parking lot. The switch to Kobussen for the school district’s bussing needs has resulted in some snags since the first day of school.

A new transportation policy overseen by a new bus company went into effect this week at the Shawano School District, but school and bus company officials are finding there are some issues to address after hearing complaints from a number of parents.

Kobussen Buses of Kaukauna was awarded the transportation contract in the spring over Johnson School Bus Service, Inc.

The district was also considering at that time a change in school start and end times that would allow the bus company to make a single run at the beginning and end of school, picking up and dropping off students from all grades at the same time.

In the past, buses were sent out for a run of high school and middle school students, then went back again for elementary students.

The new school schedules seem to be working well, with only one complaint so far, according to District Administrator Gary Cumberland.

The way students are being picked up for school and dropped off afterward is upsetting some parents, many of whom packed the district School Board chambers Tuesday to complain about stops and even some roads that have been scrapped from the bus routes this year.

About two dozen people spoke at that meeting out of more than three dozen who attended.

The district has had a longstanding policy that students should not be on the buses for any longer than one hour, and that was the directive given to Kobussen.

With more students to pick up all at once because of the new school schedule, the bus company responded to the time mandate by consolidating some of the stops and eliminating some dead-end roads and other spots where turning around was a problem.

Some parents along those routes complain their children are having to walk unreasonably far to get picked up, sometimes along roads where it’s unsafe for them to be on foot.

The School Board held a special meeting Thursday with bus company officials to discuss how to address those concerns.

“We all need to be fair to everybody,” said Dan Kobussen, vice president of Kobussen Buses. “We need to make this system as efficient as possible for everybody involved.”

Kobussen said restoring some of the bus stops would add time to the routes — about three minutes per stop — and will mean the first students picked up will have to be at their stop earlier.

Kobussen also said the number of stops within the city is increasing, partly due to the number of open enrollment students.

“Holy cow, it feels like there’s an awful lot of them in the district,” Kobussen said.

“These stops are just growing and growing and growing,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”

Board member Chuck Dallas said those observations didn’t seem to jibe with what he has seen.

“In listening to the conversation, I’m wondering if we need to build another school,” Dallas joked. “I’m on the finance committee and they have a budget that’s showing less students than we had in 2017.”

Cumberland said it was hard to tell during the first week of school. However, he said, Hillcrest Primary School had registered an additional 28 students since August.

The district won’t have an official number until the annual third Friday count.

“At this point, I’d say it’s very similar to last year,” Cumberland said in an interview Friday.

Board members at Thursday’s meeting said changes would have to be made to the current pick-up and drop-off policy, particularly in areas where safety is a concern.

“Some of these are dangerous situations that have to be rectified,” board member Bruce Milavitz said. “Stops will have to be added. No doubt about it.”

Board member Michael Sleeper said parents would also feel more secure if they don’t have to walk so far to the bus stop that they’re out of view.

“The parent of a young kid is comfortable as long as they can see them,” he said. “But once they go around a corner, over a hill, whatever, yikes.”

Milavitz said that should be a determining factor in making changes.

Kobussen said some of the problems that have come up this first week were the result of being new to the district.

“We’re still in the preliminary time of knowing what’s going on,” he said. “In the next couple of weeks, as things slow down, we’ll get to that.”

Kobussen also agreed that there are some situations where safety is an issue.

“There are situations where we may have not been quite right in our actual pick-up, so we have to re-evaluate that and we have to make exceptions to the policy that we brought to the school district,” he said.

Kobussen added that the same policy is working in other districts the bus company serves.

“If we’ve got to make changes, we’re willing to make changes,” he said. “It may end up making our routes longer. That’s one thing you’ve got to understand to begin with.”

Kobussen said the past practice of going door-to-door would necessitate another five or six buses and add around $200,000 to transportation costs.

The bus company is being paid $876,611 to provide transportation for the district under its contract, but that amount does not include fuel, which will be billed separately, or transportation for extracurricular events.

Johnson School Bus was paid $950,631 last year, but that figure did include fuel and extracurricular bus runs.

Board member Diane Hoffman said some of the community reaction to the bus route changes this year stemmed from a lack of communication.

“We knew changes were coming,” she said, “and we didn’t communicate that in a timely manner.”

The board went into closed session at Thursday’s meeting to discuss how problems raised by parents could be addressed.

Cumberland said Friday that the board had a “lengthy discussion” and ultimately agreed with a suggestion from Kobussen that someone from the schools evaluate each of the pick-up points, as well as dead-end roads and turnaround issues, to determine safety and make adjustments to the bus routes accordingly.

“The key there is safety,” he said.

Cumberland said the district might have to allow bus trips longer than an hour if necessary.

“That may be something where we’re going to have to bend a little bit,” he said.

He said the district was also willing to spend additional money to ensure student safety.

“If we have to, to make sure kids are safe, then absolutely we will,” he said. “We’ll find a way to get that done.”