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Busing could be a challenge for district's restructuring plan
It involves the city's bus plan but city officials say no one from the district has discussed it with them.
Addendum: Since publishing this story, I’ve learned that the city has been able to fill its empty positions; it has done this by changing the part-time positions to full-time. Those full-time drivers, according to Transit Commission Chair Becky McElhaney, have full-time obligation but only work part-time. Metro Ride will be fully staffed by the end of February, McElhaney tells The Wausonian.
The Wausau School Board last Monday, about three weeks after school administration first unveiled it, approved the first steps to a major overhaul of Wausau area schools.
That’s left a lot of people flabbergasted at how quickly the plan passed through the Wausau School Board. In fact, administration had hoped to get approval three weeks ago — after sending out the proposal only the Friday before.
Administrators say it’s been in the works for more than a year, and Hilts had started talking about the need for some kind of change in his first interview with this reporter when he was first hired in 2018. The district held subcommittee meetings and town halls (some have complained that they weren’t held at very convenient times, and some teachers have told The Wausonian the committees plan supporters were hand-picked for those committees.)
But more importantly, school officials were quick to say “there is no plan.” Administration would say several times that the ideas were only just that, even when talking in a school board meeting.
So many people expressed concern when suddenly there was a plan, and it appeared it would be voted on that January.
Instead, board members including Pat McKee sought more answers to questions, such as staffing and transportation.
Of those, transportation is still the biggest unanswered question out there. They involve the city and its bus system, but city leaders say they’ve heard nothing from the district.
Two city council members have told The Wausonian they’ve heard a lot of concern from residents about the restructuring plan. Council Member Lisa Rasmussen told The Wausonian she’d heard those concerns from her residents, as has council member Carol Lukens.
Moreover, none of them nor the city’s mayor, have heard a word from the district about the plan and its potential impact on the city and its bus system. Nor has it been brought to the city’s transit commission.
District Finance Officer Bob Tess told the board that the plan will cost an additional $400,000 in busing, based on very early estimates. And it would require another seven to 10 busses.
But it also means use of Metro Ride to transport some of those students. That’s something the district does already, reimbursing the school for student bus rides.
In normal times, the extra infusion of riders would be a good thing for Metro Ride. The service has been continually losing ridership and though a bold plan to save Metro Ride from a consultant is now in the hands of city leaders, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not they can pull it off.
The alternative, city officials tell The Wausonian, is that the bus service shutters.
Metro Ride has been struggling since I came back to Wausau in 2014. But a new challenge plagues the service: Metro Ride has had a severe bus rider shortage, and one transit commission member tells The Wausonian that they’ve had to created new full time positions just to hire part-time drivers. Before he retired, Transit Director Greg Seubert was driving busses himself just to keep as many routes going as possible.
And that’s another sticking point: Right now the service is in between directors. Figuring out if and how Metro Ride can provide the service to the school district will be one of the many concerns on the new director’s plate, along with the small, inconsequential task of saving the bus service itself.
Impact on students
Tess, citing consultants, told the board Monday that the maximum ride time would be one and a half hours. That includes a transfer. Tess in the first meeting told board members to get comfortable with the idea that a fifth grader might be riding Metro Ride, including a transfer at the downtown hub (including a 24-minute wait).
Those were very preliminary guesstimations based on data First Family had from being the district’s bus provider. (Through First Student.)
First Student is also struggling to keep the bus routes manned. The company just announced major changes to try to fill the workforce gap, such as bringing in personnel from other areas, increasing starting pay to $20/hour, and tweaking the bus routes for maximum efficiency.
The new plan would set back those efforts — the city isn’t laid out for efficiency going from east to west. There are three river crossings within the city limits, and the new plan means each side’s students must traverse to the other side of the city at some point in their academic career.
Council members spoken to said they don’t believe the district talked with Metro Ride about the plan. Mayor Katie Rosenberg confirmed as much to The Wausonian. No agenda item related to the district’s plans appears on the city’s Transit Commission agendas going back through 2022. How Metro Ride would fill the gap, when it’s struggling to man the routes it’s already running, is a question that remains to be answered.
The evidence is clear that the district has to do something. The Wausonian has reported before on the Wausau School District losing students every year, and this past year was no exception. And it’s hard to see a solution that doesn’t involve some restructuring of schools. At some point there just aren’t enough students for the current building structure to make sense.
But there are many more questions to be answered, and transportation might be the biggest question mark hanging over the plan.
Coming Wednesday: A clinic that provides medical and dental care on a sliding scale to low-income patients has had no staff doctors or dentists since last summer, a Wausonian investigation has discovered. If you’re already a subscriber, keep an eye on your inbox or the Substack app because you won’t want to miss it. And if you’re not already subscribed… well, I’d click that button down below because you’ll want to read this story.