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SCHOOL DISTRICT: Looking for a ride

Colleen Welch plans to send her daughter, Maren, to Grand Forks Red River High School next year - if she can find a way to get her there. Because it hasn't consolidated with other school districts, the Grand Forks School District is one of three ...

Colleen Welch plans to send her daughter, Maren, to Grand Forks Red River High School next year - if she can find a way to get her there.

Because it hasn't consolidated with other school districts, the Grand Forks School District is one of three public school districts in North Dakota that has no legal obligation to provide busing for students, according to Tom Decker, director of school finance and organization for the state Department of Public Instruction. The other two districts are Bismarck and Dickinson, he said.

While parents can pay for a private company to bus their elementary and middle school students to school, high school students in Grand Forks Public Schools either must find a ride, drive or use the city bus.

"The minute they hit ninth grade, boom. There's no more service," Welch said.

The policy leaves her 14-year-old daughter with few options, she said.

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Welch, who lives in Grand Forks but works in Warren, Minn., says she and her husband, John, leave for work too early in the morning to drive Maren to school and get home too late to pick her up.

City buses don't go directly to the school and aren't a safe option for her young daughter, she said. Red River is too far from their home for Maren to walk in the winter, or alone. And, Welch says finding someone to give Maren a ride every day is near impossible with after-school activities.

"How much more do I have to do that the school doesn't?" Welch asked. "Our country is built on the idea of a free education. How can I get that if I cannot get my child to school?"

Limited busing saves money

The Grand Forks School District provides transportation for special education students as required by law and Grand Forks Air Force Base students as required under a joint-powers agreement with the base. Elementary and middle school students can use a pay-per-ride busing program subsidized by the district.

District officials say the limited bus routes save money, allowing more funds to be spent on classroom education.

"It's a huge expense," Perry Marto, district director of buildings and grounds said of district-financed busing for all students. "The cost for that would have to be put back to the taxpayers."

Just the start-up costs for the service would be a lot, Marto said. He estimated the district would need about 20 buses, at about $120,000 each. The district also would need to purchase land and build a structure to house the buses, he said.

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During the 2005-2006 school year, transportation costs for the district totaled $1.1 million, including field trip and extracurricular activity costs, according to Marto. Of that amount, the state reimbursed the district about $400,000, according to figures from the Department of Public Instruction.

The district pays a portion of the costs of the elementary and middle school pay-per-ride program, Marto said. Each ride costs parents and students $0.70. The district adds to that amount, paying $0.45 per ride to the company that provides the service, Dietrich Bus Services, according to Marto.

In 2005-2006, the district sold 274,313 rides at last year's price of $0.60 each, collecting about $165,000 from users to pay Dietrich, according to Marto.

Many students ride Grand Forks city buses to school, according to Roger Foster, Cities Area Transit superintendent. In 2006, the city bus sold 50,694 rides to K-12 students. Foster said the city hopes to add a route to Grand Forks South Middle School by the start of the next school year.

"A lot of elementary students are using the bus routes," Foster said. "Probably, just as many as there are older students."

Supreme Court ruled buses aren't required

Three out of 195 operating school districts in North Dakota are not obligated to provide transportation because they have not been consolidated to include other neighboring districts, according to Decker.

North Dakota law provides free bus transportation to students living in districts that have reorganized to include other districts, widening the amount of territory they cover. As original districts, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Dickinson, are allowed to charge for busing costs.

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"The courts have said that transportation is not a necessary part of a free public education," Decker said. "We have no authority over local districts on an issue like this."

In 1988, the law was challenged by a Dickinson woman who said it denied equal-education rights to her daughter because the family could not afford the $97 bus fee she had to pay to get her 16 miles to the nearest school.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4, that the child did not have a constitutional right to use a school bus service without paying a fee.

The U.S. Constitution does not require that transportation services be provided, according to the decision. Local school districts should be able to decide if providing transportation services would be worth the costs and benefit the majority of students.

Without a ride,

student may transfer

Welch says if she can't find safe and suitable transportation for her daughter next school year, she'll be forced to send her to live with her grandparents in Minnesota, where buses are provided by the school district.

"The school year is going to come, and I won't have transportation," Welch said. "Am I supposed to quit my job?"

Maren said she's starting to get a little nervous. Most of her friends are planning to get rides from their parents or from older siblings, she said. "I don't know what I'll do," she said.

Welch said Grand Forks city buses don't come close enough to their house and don't go directly to the school. They're not always reliable, and Maren is young to be riding the city bus alone, she said.

Welch said even if she could find a reliable carpool to drive Maren to school and back, she would still need to find rides for any after-school activities. "I don't want to deny her that," Welch said.

"You want an education, you bring the kids. Basically, that's (the school district's) attitude," she said. "I'm tired of it. I would like to believe that education would be made available to all students, not just those who can get to school."

School Board hears

few complaints

School Board member Tim Lamb said most parents and students seem content with the safety, accessibility or affordability of transportation in the district.

"For the life of me, I just can't even remember hearing a complaint," Lamb said. Lamb has served on the School Board for eight years. "We've got a really wonderful system with the city bus line. Beyond that, a lot of parents just give their kids a ride to school or car pool."

The Grand Forks School District has never surveyed residents specifically about transportation issues, but regularly does overall surveys of district services and holds public forums every other year, according to business manager Dean Kreitinger.

"That never is a high priority, except for a few people," he said of student transportation.

When the district's pay-per-ride program was approved in 1990, members of a grass-roots organization of parents, Parents for Busing, packed School Board meetings to oppose cutting district-financed transportation.

Parents for Busing members said the pay-per-ride program was too expensive for families with more than one child.

Welch said she's probably not the only parent worried about how to get their child to school. She wondered if Grand Forks schools have lost potential students by not providing transportation. With the growing number of families with single parents and two working parents, the need for school transportation may be increasing, she said.

"If the district wants students, then they need to be more aware of the needs of the current population," Welch said.

Reach Ricker at (701) 780-1104, (800) 477-6572, ext. 104; or aricker@gfherald.com .

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