By Tim Leeds
The Havre School District has decided to take its dispute with the Cottonwood school over busing to the next level.
The Havre School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to file a complaint with the Hill County attorney and the Hill County Transportation Committee over the Cottonwood bus picking up students in the Havre district without a transportation agreement to do so.
School Board member Brian Morse said the Havre district has offered to work with Cottonwood to mediate the situation, but Cottonwood has not responded. "I don't believe it leaves us any other option," he said.
Morse, Dave Milam, Judy Bricker and Denise Thompson voted to file the complaint. Teresa Miller and Kathie Newell were excused from the meeting because of other commitments. Vice chair Aileen Couch, who represents the Cottonwood elementary district on the Havre high school board, is ineligible to vote on Havre elementary district issues.
The Cottonwood bus, which is kept overnight at its driver's house in Havre, picks up about six students in Havre on the way to its approved bus route and takes them to the Cottonwood school. The Havre district contends that violates Montana law, which states a district must have a transportation agreement before it can extend its bus route to pick up students from another district.
Havre Superintendent Kirk Miller said after the meeting that the next step will be to write a letter to the county attorney and the transportation committee asking them to look at the situation. He said the letters will be sent out by the end of the week.
The transportation committee normally meets once a year, in June, to approve bus routes. It can schedule special meetings to consider complaints and special requests. Actions the committee could take include revoking Cottonwood's reimbursement for its bus route inside the Cottonwood district. Cottonwood receives no reimbursement for the miles the bus drives from Havre to its approved route.
Miller told the board that some people have questioned whether the Havre district is being fair. He said that while Havre has an agreement allowing a K-G school bus to enter the Havre high school district to pick up students, that agreement only allows the bus to come to a point about four miles west of the city limits of Havre. Allowing the Cottonwood bus to enter Havre and pick up students would make it a recruiting tool for Cottonwood, he said. He added that with the declining enrollment in the Havre district, allowing any type of recruitment is not a good idea.
Miller said that he was talking to a member of the Cottonwood Board and Hill County Superintendent of Schools Shirley Isbell this week, and offered to negotiate with Cottonwood to find a good spot outside of Havre to stop and pick up the students, but did not receive a definite response.
Cottonwood board member Kim Faechner said today that Cottonwood was perfectly willing to discuss finding a spot outside of Havre to pick up the students. She said she thought the issue would be tabled until the Havre board's December meeting, giving the Cottonwood board time to negotiate about the busing.
Miller said today that he did talk about tabling the issue, but "that isn't the way it worked out."
Miller also told the School Board on Tuesday that although the Cottonwood board member denied that the bus is being used as a recruiting tool, a new student began riding the bus to Cottonwood about two weeks ago.
Leeann Farinas, who is the mother of the girl who recently began attending Cottonwood, said the bus had nothing to do with her daughter going out of Havre. She said if her daughter had not chosen Cottonwood, Farinas would have sent her to K-G or some other school. Her other two children are still attending Havre schools, she said.
Her daughter had been having problems with other students in the Havre schools, Farinas said, and after her daughter's principal and teachers didn't return calls about the problem, she decided to look at other schools. Farinas said she will still send her daughter to Cottonwood even if the bus service is stopped.
She said she didn't think the bus would be such a big issue.
"It's blown out of proportion. These children are going to go out there whether they have a bus or not," Farinas said. "It's only fair that they let the bus in."
Faechner said she can't understand why Havre has such a problem with the Cottonwood bus, especially when Havre exchanges students with so many other districts. Cottonwood has never sought Havre students, she added.
"We have never recruited kids," she said. "We have never called parents and said, Hey, bring your kids to Cottonwood.'"