A new school bus policy put into place this year for pre-school and special needs students has sparked complaints from some parents.
Last week, the Early Childhood Center sent out a notice to local families served by the White Salmon Valley School District's buses. The notice informed parents that students cannot use the bus to come home from school unless they take the bus to school as well.
The notice from the Early Childhood Center explained that funding for bus service is based on the number of kids going to school. As a result, the students riding home only are not included in the counts that bring transportation dollars to the district.
"The bus ride to school is the one that generates the funding to provide this bus service," read the notice. "Therefore, the following are changes in our procedures:
Transportation will not be provided from school only;
Children can ride to school only;
Children can ride to and from school;
24-hour advance notice is necessary to make changes in existing requests ...
Our apologies for any inconvenience this may cause."
Jill Davis, Early Childhood Coordinator, said the pre-school center is following policy.
"It's based on the school district policy on funding," Davis explained. "It is a change from last year and years previous. We had a meeting several days ago, and as an outcome of that meeting, we were advised not to have home service be an option due to funding. There is no home-only transportation. It was changed because the funding was tightened."
Dena Riggleman, who lives near BZ Corner, said the policy creates a hardship for her 4-year-old son, Kolby.
"As a mother, I can drop him off, but at 11 a.m. I can't leave work to go get him," Riggleman said. "And where we live, he'd have to ride the bus for over an hour in the morning. I drop him off because it's too long a ride. In the afternoons, the ride would just be to babysitters in town."
Tammy Beneventi, a Bingen resident, said the new policy was "an inconvenience," and she needed to adjust her work schedule to handle the change.
"It would be really nice for my son if he could take the bus home, but I've worked around it," Beneventi said. "I can leave work and go get my child. I'd love for them to change the policy, and have him be able to take the bus home."
"We feel we're being discriminated against," Riggleman said. "It's an inconvenience, and also Kolby was looking forward to riding the bus like a big kid."
Sharon Schalk, who handles transportation for the White Salmon Valley School District, explained that funding decisions are made at a statewide level.
"The state has very specific rules," Schalk said. "There is a book that tells us exactly what we're going to do. They tell us how and when. We take a count in the morning and double it. If a student just wanted a ride home, there is no funding for that. That would be direct costs out, with no reimbursement."
Schalk added that the policy affects only pre-school students in the 3- and 4-year old age group. Schalk pointed out that school buses for the pre-school age students and special needs students go door-to-door to pick up and drop off the kids.
"When it's door-to-door, it costs big dollars to get out there," Schalk said.
Davis praised the school district for offering bus service to pre-schoolers, which many school districts do not provide.
"Transportation is a huge benefit to our programs and to parents. The school district and Sharon knock themselves out to make this work for us, door-to-door," Davis said. "I don't know if parents know how much of a benefit this is. It's not something the school district has to do, and I'd hate to see it jeopardized."
Davis explained that the bus service was originally funded by a grant, and only those with disabilities or special needs were transported.
"But we had a bus and wanted to offer it to other parents," she said.
Davis added that she was disappointed no parents have contacted her directly with their concerns.
"If people have issues, all they have to do is ask and I'll try to get more information about it," she said.
Riggleman said she was not singling out the White Salmon School District.
"This is not per se against White Salmon, but the whole state in general," Riggleman said. "I think at the state level, they should find a different way to get funding. They should do an average of kids per day, not just morning kids."
Riggleman also said the late notice about the changed policy made the situation more difficult.
"They didn't inform us of this until Sept. 11. My son started school Sept. 12," she said.
According to Schalk, the new policy was set after a recent meeting of staff at the school district and the Early Childhood Center.
Schalk said the reality was, transportation costs are increasing, and government support is vital to continue running the buses.
"We've all been to the gas pumps and know how much it costs," Schalk said.
The district has a fleet of 19 buses and transports approximately 850 students a day, of all grade levels, on regular school days.
Schalk encouraged parents to call if they wanted more information about the school district's bus transportation policy.
"If you have any concerns, questions, or needs, please call," Schalk said.
Schalk can be reached at 493-1590; Davis is at 493-4222.