The St. Michael-Albertville School District board room was packed Monday evening with parents showing their support for a proposal to offer fee-based transportation to some of the district’s 700 + open enrolled students.
After lengthy discussion, the school board did not disappoint, opting unanimously to follow Superintendent Dr. Ann-Marie Foucault’s recommendation to offer a two-year pilot program that would provide transportation to targeted areas of the Elk River School District that are in or near the City of Albertville.
The district aims to make this change financially net neutral, or close to, Foucault said. The fee would be $300 for one student for the school year, with a $500 per family cap.
An automated email will be sent out today to all students open-enrolled from District 728 who live in the targeted geographic area, including just north of Interstate 94 up to 80th Street Northeast in Otsego on both the west and east sides of County Road 19. The district will only contact currently open enrolled families, but the pilot program is also open to others in that area who are interested but not currently open enrolled, such as those whose first child is entering kindergarten this fall or families who would like to open enroll into STMA if bussing were available. Foucault said the district will put up a banner on the front page of the district web site within the next couple days that will include a link for parents who are not currently open enrolled.
St. Michael Catholic School families from this area are also eligible.
The board encouraged neighbors to help spread the word to others who may be interested and have them contact Suzanne Gallagher in the district office for more information. The district office phone number is 763-497-3180. The school district will then base the new bus routes on the results of their survey of these families.
Deadlines are already coming up fairly quickly to take part in the pilot transportation program, which will begin this fall for the 2017-2018 school year. Parent notifications will begin as soon as Tuesday, and the deadline to sign up is April 7. An initial payment will be due by May 7 and the second portion of the payment will be due Aug. 1.
The STMA School District could lose a significant amount of open enrolled students with the new E-8 school that District 728 is currently building near the intersection of 80th Street and Maciver Avenue Northeast Otsego, and Foucault said that could have financial repercussions for students across the STMA district.
“I can guarantee that if we don’t do this, we as a district will lose kids to the Elk River School District – our current open enrollees,” Foucault said.
She said 527 out of 733 of the district’s open enrolled students were from District 728 in fiscal year 2016, with nearly 400 of those students residing within the 55301 zip code. Losing just 100 of those students would equal out to a loss of $4.1 million over five years. Foucault has said many times that STMA’s open enrolled population has allowed the district to continue operating in the black without another local levy increase, since open enrollment is a net positive for the district. And now that the bond referendum has passed, the district feels it will have enough building capacity to handle all the families who want their children to attend STMA, whether they live within the district borders or not.
Beyond the financial aspect of the decision, Foucault said it was also an important safety consideration, with increased traffic especially around Albertville Primary, Big Woods and Middle School West. The City of Albertville passed a resolution a few weeks ago to ask the STMA school district to consider giving Albertville families a transportation option to cut down on traffic and safety concerns and to help maintain “the unique relationship Albertville maintains with the STMA district.” And, in addition to safety and financial prudence, she said it was the right thing to do for the families involved. In fact, Foucault said the Elk River school district’s interim superintendent told her that he would do the same thing if he was in Foucault’s shoes.
“They feel connected to our school district,” Foucault said of the open enrolled families. “They shop in our community, they participate in activities in our community and their parents participate in civic organizations in our community. And we want to keep them as part of our community. We want them here; we embrace them.”
Foucault added that the school board will continue to work with the Elk River district regarding a possible land swap arrangement, but said the transportation program was something more immediate they could do.
Reaction to the transportation proposal was, as expected, extremely positive among meeting attendees. Many spoke of their family’s deep ties to the STMA school district and community and expressed how much this would help their families. Others, such as John Morstad, pointed out the benefits of having a larger number of open enrolled students. He said it helps districts offer more things to their students, such as advanced placement courses, College in Schools courses and other programs.
“The districts that really excel at open enrollment offer bussing … and continuing to have that open enrollment will keep providing the extra revenue so you can have those programs that separate us from neighbors around us,” Morstad said. “Then this is the district people want to come to.”
“I’m a strong supporter of open enrollment,” board member Jeff Lindquist said while stating his support for the transportation pilot program. “I think it strengthens our district, especially when we have people here who are really part of our community already. It just seems to make sense.”