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Wisconsin Spotlight | Aug. 19, 2020

MADISON — Is Racine Unified School District shirking its responsibilities to provide transportation to Racine children attending private schools?

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) recently sent a letter advising the district to comply with the law. 

Citing concerns about the pandemic, RUSD has decided to forego in-school education for the first three months of the upcoming school year. But that fact does not relieve the district of its legal obligation to provide bus service to private school students who will be attending classroom-based school. 

In the letter, WILL said it has learned that the district has refused to provide yellow bus service, as it has in the past, to many Racine students attending private schools — except at times that “do not coincide with their schools’ start and end times.”

RUSD has said it will drop off children at some schools at 9 a.m. and pick them up at 4:15 p.m., even though the school day for private schools starts at 8:05 a.m. and ends at 3:10 p.m., according to the letter.

WILL, a Milwaukee-based public interest law firm, asserts RUSD has known of the private schools’ start and end times for months.

“Our kids are heading back to school in the fall and there’s obviously already a lot of uncertainty surrounding exactly what that’s going to look like,” Anthony LoCoco, WILL’s deputy counsel, told Empower Wisconsin last week on the Vicki McKenna Show. “Unfortunately RUSD is making the situation worse by telling some private school students in its district, ‘Sure, we’re going to send you yellow buses but they’re not going to get you to class on time.’”

Children in Racine’s private schools make up a small fraction of the student body RUSD’s transportation system serves. With thousands of students learning virtually at home, the buses will not be nearly as busy as during a normal year.

LoCoco said the failure to provide on-time transportation to private school students is a breach of the district’s legal obligations.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has ruled that cutting costs is not adequate justification for withholding busing benefits.

“The Wisconsin statutes are really clear on this. The district has a legal obligation to effectively schedule these routes with an eye toward school safety and welfare,” the attorney said. “What they’re doing obviously accomplishes the opposite. It’s forcing schools to miss class, and prayer time in some cases, and creates expenses for before-and after-school care for parent work schedules.”

WILL is representing the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools.

“The Racine school district is telling private school students that its plan for busing won’t get them to school on time. Missing school time is not acceptable,” said Sharon Schmeling, executive director of the council. “The District needs to rethink its approach and do what is in the best interest of children.”

LoCoco said WILL and the council are waiting for a response from RUSD. They’re leaving all legal options on the table. As of Tuesday, district officials had not responded to WILL’s letter. 

District spokeswoman Stacy Tapp did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment. She told the Racine Journal Times last week that the district has developed a plan that is “flexible and provides as much stability for ALL families as possible.”

“We recognize how difficult it is for a family to adjust start and end times in the middle of a school year — this plan avoids that. In light of these challenging circumstances, we have asked the private and parochial schools to work with us this year to accommodate the necessary bus times and to ensure safety and stability for all students,” Tapp said.

LoCoco said it’s unclear why it is seemingly so difficult to meet the transportation needs of the private and independent schools. Districts are dealing with capacity restrictions, but with a virtual education plan for its public students, finding enough space on the yellow buses shouldn’t be a problem. 

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