Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - Still room for district, Regina to work together

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 12, 2009

Our View - Still room for district, Regina to work together

Iowa City School District and Regina officials agree on very little when it comes to how much the district should pay to transport students to Regina Catholic Education Center. But both sides agree that it seems unlikely the Iowa City School Board is going to change its mind after Thursday's 6-1 decision to discontinue busing to Regina at the end of the current school year.

"The Regina community has a history of coming together and figuring out solutions," said Regina President Carol Trueg. "We're continuing to explore options and to figure out what's the best way to serve our families."

That's good because continued cooperation between the district and Regina remains essential. Part of the motion approved Thursday includes a provision for Iowa City Superintendent Lane Plugge to work with Trueg and other Regina officials to figure the best way to pass along the transportation reimbursement that the state allows for accredited, non-public schools.

If both sides agree, the district and Regina could contract for a 28E agreement that would allow the reimbursements for bus-eligible Regina students to flow directly from the state, through the district to the school itself. Otherwise, individual families who attend the 855-student school would have to apply for the state reimbursement individually -- as is the case with the families who attend the 55-student Willowwind.

Unfortunately, both sides have some animosity to overcome if the district and Regina are going to continue to work together as effectively has they have for decades.

• The district estimates that it is losing nearly $260,000 this year in the difference between how much it actually pays for the 11 buses for Regina students and how the state reimburses the district for the expense.

But Regina officials say the shortfall is actually much lower -- as little as $140,000 -- because three of the routes designated for Regina also ferry public school students who have opted out of their Schools in Need of Assistance and are now enrolled in Hoover Elementary.

District officials say if they didn't use the Regina buses for the SINA students -- whose transportation is paid for out of Title 1 money rather than out the general fund -- they would make use of other existing routes. So they are standing by the $260,000 figure.

We think the specific dollar amount matters less than the fact that the Regina decision is just one of many difficult, budget-cutting decisions that the school board will have to make soon because of plummeting state revenues and funding levels.

• Regina officials say the district has shot down all of their ideas for further improving bus service. They also say that last week's negotiations, while congenial, were basically done in bad faith on the district's part.

"We realize transporting directly from a student's home to Regina is the Cadillac of service," Trueg said. "We're open to transfers and sharing buses."

But district officials say that they are wary of the complications that would come with bus transfers. And they say many of Regina's proposed changes would have extended route times beyond the 60- or 75-minute limit and would have required other practices that school districts aren't allowed to do under state law.

If Regina and the district were to contract under a 28E agreement, however, then district officials say the state-accredited, non-public school would be free to be as creative as it would like to be when it comes to combining routes, implementing centralized pick-up points or otherwise trimming its busing costs.

Plugge said he is still open to suggestions from Regina on how they can work together to find a solution that is "revenue neutral" for the district, but he doesn't think such a solution is likely.

Trueg said that, even under the best case scenario for trimming transportation costs, there still is going to be a shortfall between what the state reimburses and what Regina will actually pay.

We agree with the district that any shortfall is Regina's responsibility to pay. But we hope the district and Regina can continue to work together to make that shortfall as short as possible for the area's largest state-accredited, non-public school.

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