Upcoming meetings to look at Elkhart Schools transportation plans

Roosevelt and Hathorne to both become kindergarten through sixth-grade elementaries.

Posted on April 16, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on April 16, 2013 at 4:52 p.m.

ELKHART — Start and end times for Elkhart Community Schools students and the enrollment boundaries for some elementary schools will likely change next year as administrators grapple with budget constraints.

Elkhart Community Schools will be holding three public meetings to go over possible changes to next year’s transportation plans and to get feedback from the community before the Elkhart School Board makes a final decision on the proposal.

Meetings will be at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, in the cafeteria at North Side Middle School, 300 Lawrence St.; at 6 p.m., April 22, in the cafeteria at Pierre Moran Middle School, 200 W. Lusher Ave.; and at 6 p.m., April 24, in the large group room at West Side Middle School, 101 S. Nappanee St.

Because of a significant shortfall of possibly up to $2.2 million to the district’s transportation fund due to property tax caps, school administrators have created plans to offset the cuts to the budget. The school system’s capital projects fund is also impacted by the tax caps, but Elkhart Superintendent Rob Haworth noted that “where it will be felt and more significantly seen is in the area of transportation.”

There are two aspects of the school district’s transportation plan that will change next year.

The first piece looks at staggering start and end times of schools to allow the school corporation to lessen the number of buses it maintains.

Elkhart administrators have developed three different options of how to use fewer buses running more routes. In each plan, the amount of instructional time for high school and middle school students will decrease, while the amount of instructional time for elementary school students will increase. Each option, though, has a different degree of savings.

One option has elementary starting and ending earliest, while middle and high schools would start a bit later than the elementaries and then end a bit later, Haworth explained. The other two options are variations of having elementaries, middle schools and high schools basically each starting and ending at their own times. Administrators will go over the details of each option at the public meetings.

The second part of the proposal is to redraw the boundaries of Elkhart’s elementary school districts.

Doug Hasler, executive director of support services, explained that the elementary school district boundaries, like scheduling and transportation plans, likely haven’t been changed in at least a few decades.

The look of the school district has changed during that time. For example, Hasler said, “a district boundary had been drawn across a field of corn,” where there may now be a growing subdivision. “Then, it didn’t matter. Now, it does,” he said.

The redrawing of the district lines will not impact which middle or high school students attend, only the student’s elementary school. It’s an effort to make sure bus routes are running as efficiently as possible, Haworth said. Administrators are also attuned to trying to create balanced classroom sizes across the district, while also not wanting to suddenly add or decrease a school’s enrollment by a significant number. At some schools, only a few kids may have to go to a different elementary school next year, while other schools may have higher numbers of students switching.

The largest change, Haworth said, will be for Roosevelt Primary School and Hawthorne Elementary. Roosevelt houses kindergarten through second grade. Those students then continue on to Hawthorne for third through sixth grade. That means that buses from each school follow each other while picking up students in those same communities. Starting next year, Roosevelt and Hawthorne will both be full elementary schools. Haworth said that space should not be an issue at either building.

The two-aspect approach to the plans is an effort by school leaders to not have to borrow from the school system’s general fund, which covers teachers and classroom expenses, to pay transportation costs and to maintain the quality of Elkhart’s bus drivers. Haworth said that, when faced with transportation budget issues, school districts could cut drivers’ wages and benefits, but “we need bus drivers who care about the students they’re transporting. We don’t just want them to haul cargo.”

Haworth also said that he does not want to stop transportation for Elkhart Schools’ extracurricular activities.

Schools’ athletic departments cover the cost of their transportation through ticket prices and fundraisers. Other groups may also have to contribute more to help cover transportation costs.

Athletics, band, orchestra and other extracurriculars “are a part of Elkhart’s DNA,” Haworth said. “We are going to try as hard as we can to not only keep those, but expand those programs.”

At the public meetings, school transportation and budget officials will explain the reasons for the recommended changes, go over the details of each busing plan and the elementary redistricting plan and gather input from parents and community members.

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