D-49 eliminates bus services, fire officials shut down meeting

January 13, 2011
photo - People crowded into the small board room in the portable building that houses District 49's administration offices Thursday night. Photo by Courtesy of John Litchenberg, Falcon School District 49
People crowded into the small board room in the portable building that houses District 49's administration offices Thursday night. Photo by Courtesy of John Litchenberg, Falcon School District 49 

With fire officials warning that its crowded meeting room was unsafe, the Falcon School District 49 school board cut short its discussion Thursday of bus services and voted unanimously to eliminate its transportation department and seek proposals to replace the services at reduced cost.

The board also agreed to move ahead with a plan to restructure the district, setting a timeline for the creation of “innovation zones” and “innovation leaders.”

The plan would move the district from a top down, conventional system to one that relies heavily on community involvement, according to a short presentation on the plan. The state has granted innovation status to individual schools, including one in Colorado Springs School District 11, but Falcon might be the first district to apply the concept districtwide.

But the hot topic of the evening was the plan to cut transportation services as of next school year to save money.

People had crowded into the small board room in the portable building that houses the district’s administration offices, and spilled into the hallway. Many remained outside, peering through windows and shouting that they couldn’t hear the proceedings. Just before the vote was taken, board president Dave Martin sought crowd control from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

That brought out the Falcon Fire Department, which determined the board room was well over its capacity of 123 people, said Battalion Chief Jeff Petersma. He informed the board and members agreed to finish with the vote and adjourn.  

The board took public comment for 30 minutes, and heard from people who supported the transportation cut as well as those who opposed it, although it was clear that most of the crowd was angered by the proposal and believed they had not been given adequate information about the plan.

Rita Schott, mother of a seventh-grade student who rides the bus, watched the meeting from outside “trying to read lips and so forth.”

“It gave people a real backdoor impression of doing things,” Schott said. “It was horrible.”

“People are real furious” about the decision, Schott said.

 Ann Fletcher, who drives her child and others to school, said she supported the decision.

“If we’re going to cut education or transportation, thank you for educating my kid,” she said.

While a few parents said the cut should not have been a surprise, many others at the meeting, including parents and district transportation workers, felt they had no notice that axing buses was going to be decided by the board.

Some found out about the vote from a flyer that bus drivers gave to students.

Board members urged the public to pay attention and read the website to be aware of what is happening in the district. Board Vice President Chris Wright told those at the meeting that they should be joining committees to get involved, not just show up at the last moment.

However, the board agenda posted Monday did not include the transportation item. It was added to a revised agenda posted later in the week.

Board members said the innovation plan and transportation had been topics in previous meetings, including the most recent on Dec. 29. The agenda for that board retreat was posted online Dec. 20, with only one item listed: District Organizational Chart.

Earlier in the day, Sherry Littrell, who lives in rural Latigo Trails, said she doesn’t know how her grandchildren will get to school if busing is eliminated in the sprawling district. The district buses about 4,800 students daily; about 6,500 are eligible to ride buses.

Littrell said the bus her almost 9-year-old granddaughter rides four miles to Meridian Ranch Elementary School is always full, as are the buses with older students.

Her household has one vehicle, and her husband and daughter leave for work about 5 a.m.

“We want to get our kids to school, but if you don’t have transportation, how are you supposed to do it?”

D-49 transportation director Cindy Hardin said the department has been working on alternative plans and expects to present its proposal by the end of the month. She said the options include charging a fee for bus service, as other districts have done as education budgets shrink.

Contact the writer at 636-0162.

Staff writer Jakob Rodgers contributed to this report.

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