“For private school students in particular, if a particular student is expensive in a sense that it costs 1.5 times the average per pupil cost for transportation, a school district can instead offer a parent contract,” Wadas said.
When the Franklin School Board assessed that the average cost of busing private school students, which included Hales Corners Lutheran and St. Paul’s Lutheran schools, came out to more than $1,000 per pupil per year, more than 1.5 times the cost per public school student which averaged $347 per pupil for the 2008-09 school year, they opted to issue parent contracts. The contracts, which would have been issued to parents in the amount of $346 per student per year, were to be compensation for the cost of transporting their children to and from school in lieu of the busing service.
Of the nearly 84 Franklin students eligible to take the bus, about 53 use the service, but not every day. Instead of eliminating the busing service as the school board planned, the St. Martin of Tours group met almost every Wednesday over the summer and came up with a solution of combining the multiple busing routes into one efficient, money-saving route in the morning and afternoon.
Busing cut elsewhere
Wadas said she’s seen an increase in removal of these services in the recent years – St. Gabriel, Hubertus, struggled to keep busing for its 4-year-old kindergarten; Milwaukee Public Schools informed principals at private schools within the city that “it will not provide transportation to any student who is not included on the list of eligible students in need of transportation submitted by the schools on May 15, as dictated by statute,” including new students to the district; as well as similar cases in both the La Crosse and Madison Dioceses.
“I think as budgets get tighter, school districts try to look at ways to be more administratively efficient and start to review their numbers a little more strenuously, and I think what’s unique is that a lot of times we’re finding that these situations can be settled by administrators and principals from both public and private organizations working together,” she said, explaining that she hasn’t seen these types of cases go to court yet. “…It seems like it can be done just through everybody sitting down and finding a new, better way to both save funds and provide transportation for students.”
Wadas said key is the help of parent advocates who will engage in a civil discussion with school board members, principals and their local school district superintendents.
“In each one of those instances, I have to say it’s parent advocates being involved in the process because they’re voters and they’re constituents and we’re talking about elected officials here – they have a powerful voice in their community,” she said.
Judy Edwards, whose fifth-grade daughter rides the bus at St. Martin, devoted a lot of time and effort to keeping the school bus rolling.
“It became a matter of having to do what was the right thing to do and although, individually, it may not have been as big of a hardship for our family as for some of the other families, this was the right thing to do for our parish community,” she said, noting that much of the support came from the parish community at large, even parishioners with no connections to the school. “…It was a wonderful thing to see, and it was a real good example (of) if we work together, then we can make things happen.”
Edwards found the process to be a learning experience on the busing system and an eye opener in terms of how tax money that supports the public schools is spent.
“I got a really good education as far as, ‘Is that really how I want my tax money spent when it comes down to do we cut this or cut that, or do we do this or bill that?’” she said. “That is our money and it was a good wake-up call that you have to be involved in the broader community and not just be looking in your own backyard all the time.”
Children’s safety key concern
Edwards said the issue was larger than whether the children were taken to school by bus or car, but centered on getting them there safely. Because of its lack of sidewalks and heavy traffic, Franklin has been designated a hazardous transportation area by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department, giving Edwards and others another reason to work toward saving the service.
“Every child should have a safe means to get to school,” she said, explaining that she couldn’t see a good reason to increase car traffic in the limited area of access to the school without sidewalks where children could safely walk. “…It was a matter of safety and it’s just, again, when you work together things happen – good things happen – and it was just, it was a good community builder for the school over the summer.”
David Lodes, superintendent of the archdiocesan schools office, said Johnson did a good job managing the situation and dealing with the local politics. The archdiocesan role, according to Lodes, is staying aware of the situation and ensuring accuracy in the numbers used to make the decision to cut busing to private schools and “to advise other school districts to be careful and be prepared because busing is a very integral part of our Catholic education system.”
If the bus is a family’s only way to get a child to school, because both parents work, have one car or don’t have carpooling abilities, attending a Catholic school can be difficult.
“So, it’s like they’ve lost a support system,” Lodes said.
Supporters included grandmas and grandpas
Johnson, principal of St. Martin of Tours for 11 years, said the cooperation and sacrifice of those involved resulted in the continuation of the busing service – from collecting 196 signatures at a petition drive to spending nearly every Wednesday night in meetings with parents or school board members, since the June 10 school board meeting where the decision was made to end busing, to writing letters or e-mails of support.
“I had support from the what I’ll call the grandmas and the grandpas in our parish as well, so it wasn’t just the school families, it was from a grassroots effort – we involved as many people as we could within the community,” Johnson said.
Johnson and the group number crunched with the help of Wadas and Matt Kussow, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools. They also had many discussions and eventually presented a new perspective to the school board.
“(Their) approach was to take the meat cleaver to the budget and cut all four (buses) as opposed to a scalpel, and I think working in small schools like we have in the Catholic system, you have to learn how to use a scalpel,” Johnson said.
The final decision to keep the busing was approved by the school board on Wednesday, Aug. 26, the first day of school, and the service began on Friday, Aug. 28.
School lost one family
While the school lost one family related to the busing issue, Johnson said the damage could have had a much worse effect on enrollment had the school parents reacted differently.
“It wasn’t, ‘The sky is falling’; it’s, ‘What are we going to do about this?’” she said. “I think that’s huge, not just for us, but for the whole democratic process.”
But losing even one family was still sad to Edwards.
“We definitely didn’t want to lose 10 families over the lack of a bus and I think if that were going to be a possibility, we probably would have worked that much harder and found an alternative to replace the bus somehow if the school board hadn’t changed their mind.”
Because the busing issue can happen anywhere, Edwards encourages others to keep up with what’s happening in the community.
“It all has an impact and I guess if you feel strongly enough about something, you have to research it, investigate it, pray on it a whole lot and come to the conclusion, ‘Is this a battle worth taking on?’, and, in this case, it was. It was a lot of work, but in the long run, I know I did the right thing,” she said.