Havre Daily News
A third busing dispute in four years has plagued the relationship between the Havre and Cottonwood school districts.
The Hill County Transportation Committee decided Thursday to support Havre's position and allow the district to continue busing Cottonwood district students to Havre elementary schools without an agreement with Cottonwood.
In September, the County Transportation Committee told Havre it would need an agreement with Cottonwood or would have to stop four bus routes that enter Cottonwood, carrying more than 200 high school and elementary students to Havre schools.
The Thursday decision means Havre can continue the four routes. Had the Havre appeal failed, those bus routes would have to be discontinued, leaving all of those students to find another way to school, and Havre would have had to appeal that decision to the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
The sore point between the two districts is that Havre buses transport elementary students who live in the Cottonwood elementary district, which is within the Havre high school district. But Havre does not allow Cottonwood to pick up elementary students who live in the Havre elementary district.
Complaints filed by the Cottonwood school board this fall led to the September hearing before the County Transportation Committee, which approves all publically subsidized bus routes in the county. No Havre representatives were at that meeting.
Havre was given 60 days to appeal the decision to the committee, which is headed by the county superintendent of schools and made up of two representatives of each school district in the county.
The committee voted 6-1 Thursday to reverse its September decision. Havre Public Schools director of operations Ric Floren, who is a transportation committee member, spoke on behalf of Havre and argued that Havre's bus routes are operating in accordance with state law.
OPI financial administrator Joan Anderson said today that as long as the buses picking up students in the Cottonwood district are operated by Havre High School, Havre can pick up any students it chooses without an agreement with Cottonwood.
Rocky Boy school board and transportation committee member Ted Whitford cast the lone dissenting vote Thursday. Whitford had asked in September that the two districts reach an agreement or that Havre stop routes into Cottonwood.
“As long as they are within the law, I have no problem with it at all,” Whitford said today after hearing Anderson's opinion. He said he had always believed that one district needs an agreement before busing students from another district.
Anderson said that's true only if the bus that transports those students leaves its own district, which a Havre High School bus in Cottonwood does not do.
“It's been coming up for years,” Cottonwood school board president Kim Faechner said Thursday after hearing about the vote. Faechner was not at the Thursday meeting.
Cottonwood has filed similar complaints in the past, and Havre complained when a Cottonwood bus driver picked up students in Havre before beginning an approved route.
Cottonwood has always wanted a reciprocal agreement with Havre, allowing Cottonwood to pick up elementary school students from Havre and Havre to pick up elementary students from Cottonwood, Faechner said.
In 2002, Havre canceled all reciprocalagreements with other districts and has since opposed all attempts to bus students out of Havre districts.
Faechner said she wasn't surprised by the decision. “Havre gets what Havre wants,” she said.
During the Thursday hearing, Floren described the consequences if Havre's appeal failed.
Floren said Havre would have to take the issue to OPI and would contend that the September meeting was not a proper meeting because Hill County Superintendent of Schools Shirley Isbell had not presided. The law says the county superintendent must preside over meetings, he said.
Isbell had hired Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools Gary Pace to conduct that meeting and Thursday's meeting, Floren said.
Pace said Isbell had recused herself because she felt she was too close to the issues.
Isbell could not be reached for comment. She serves as superintendent of Cottonwood and Davey schools, which are both too small to have individual district superintendents.
Floren also argued that state law does not have any guidelines for reviewing previously approved routes and said the committee does not have that power.
Not only is Havre Public Schools allowed to pick up Cottonwood elementary students, if it chose to it could be reimbursed for the transportation costs for most of those students, Floren said. That's because many elementary students Havre buses out of Cottonwood have siblings who attend Havre Public Schools, fulfilling one criterion the state sets for determining what transportation costs are reimbursed.
Havre has not sought reimbursement for those students in the past, Floren said.
If the bus routes into Cottonwood were cancelled, Havre would have to create individual transportation agreements with the families of all eligible students. The state and county would reimburse families for driving their own kids to school.
The students whose parents are eligible for reimbursement include all but six of the more than 200 students on the routes, Floren said.
“Havre Public Schools is going to provide transportation service to these 221 students whether the route had been approved,” Floren said. “We would actually save money ... unfortunately it would cost the county and state a considerable amount more.”
HPS busing costs the district more than the county and state pays, he said. Districts do not pay any portion of individual transportation contracts with families, he said.