Rochester Public Schools considering overhaul to reduce bussing times and save money

Wheel chair lift
The overhaul could reduce bussing times, getting elementary students to school earlier and saving some money.
Photo courtesy Beth Rank

Rochester Public Schools is facing a complicated redistricting overhaul aimed at reducing bussing times, getting elementary students to school earlier and saving some money.

The proposal was announced Monday morning, and MPR News reporter Catharine Richert has been following this story. She joined the show from Rochester, Minn., to explain why this big overhaul and what it proposes to do.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Another story we're following. Rochester Public Schools is facing a complicated redistricting overhaul aimed at reducing busing times, getting elementary students to school earlier, and saving some money. Their proposal was announced just this morning. Reporter Catharine Richert has been following this story, and she's joining us live from Rochester.

OK, Cat. This is kind of a complicated for folks. It's an Interesting story. Lay it out for us. And this is a pretty big overhaul. What does it propose to do?

CATHARINE RICHERT: OK. So think of this as like a massive jigsaw puzzle, where all these pieces need to fall into place for it to work. A big piece is school start times. For several years, Rochester has wanted to start elementary students earlier and middle and high school students later in the day. And this is based on the idea that younger kids are better learners earlier in the day, and teens need to sleep in a little bit, and they learn to learn better later in the day.

But this has been really hard to do, in large part because the district supports transportation for six districtwide schools. So these are schools that specialize in certain areas, such as a Spanish immersion school, and they award spots based on a lottery. So you can really live anywhere in Rochester and be guaranteed transportation there. And you have these buses zigzagging all over the district, and you have these new start times. Here's what Superintendent Kent Pekel said.

KENT PEKEL: And we cannot make the New start times work, which requires much faster turnarounds between our bus routes, unless we cut off the very long routes that students get to our what we call districtwide option schools.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Under this proposal, these schools would only take kids who live in the immediate attendance area or who can provide their own transportation to and from the school. And even then, if the school is full of kids from the neighborhood, they may have to implement a lottery system for kids outside the attendance boundaries.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm. OK. This still sounds pretty complicated, and I'm sure pretty disruptive to some families.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yeah, it's a big deal. And I think it marks a big change in how RPS has operated for a long time. On top of all of this, three schools that are under-enrolled are actually going to close or consolidate. Rochester Education Association Union President Vince Wagner told me this is a big blow to teachers at these schools.

VINCE WAGNER: It was kind of shocking that the proposal included closing three schools. I am inundated with calls, emails, texts from members in those three buildings this morning. They are in full-blown panic mode.

CATHARINE RICHERT: And these are not just jobs, but these are sort of sad, emotional times for these teachers because they have a real connection to these schools where they've taught for a long time. And just to complicate matters further, the union is in contract negotiations right now and is asking for smaller class sizes, which Wagner says is that much harder when schools are closing or consolidating.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So we have big transportation changes. Three schools are proposed to close. Is all this because the district is facing money problems?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yes and no. I mean, so Rochester has been looking at a deficit for several years now. And the long story short here is that the district overstaffed under a previous superintedent and overbuilt. And student enrollment just did not expand as much as the district predicted.

So the district has already made $20 million in cuts over two years. But earlier this month, a levy that would have generated $10 million more for technology and freed up some cash for other things failed narrowly. Now, Kent Pekel says that levy's failure isn't the primary reason behind these changes but it certainly contributed to it. Eliminating districtwide buses for those lottery schools will save some money, but the final numbers are still being worked out there. And Pekel says that he expects staff sizes to shrink some after those school closures. However, the teachers' contract provides for them to take different jobs within the district based on seniority.

CATHY WURZER: What else does this plan do?

CATHARINE RICHERT: It does some expansions. It expands before and after school care for elementary students, especially if they're starting earlier and ending earlier. That's really going to fill the gap before parents can end their workday. And that's been in short supply for some time now. It also adds an alternative learning center for middle schoolers, and that's among a few other changes.

CATHY WURZER: OK. What are you going to be watching for next, Catharine?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, three things really. The school board will be presented with this plan tomorrow night at a meeting. I think it'll be really interesting to see how parents react, given that they very intentionally sent their kids to these districtwide schools. That was an intentional decision. I'll also be watching for the new boundaries to be announced early next month. While most kids will stay in the schools where they go, if they're going to that neighborhood school, to make all of this work, they need to make some tweaks sort of everywhere in the city. And then I'll be watching for the school board to vote on this early next year.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Catharine, thank you.

CATHARINE RICHERT: You're welcome, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: That's MPR News Reporter Catharine Richert from Rochester.

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