RACINE — In a somewhat familiar move for the group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is again threatening to take legal action if Racine Unified School District doesn't make changes to its private school busing schedule.
WILL is a conservative nonprofit based in Milwaukee that says it “seek(s) to advance the public interest in the rule of law, individual liberty, constitutional government, and a robust civil society.”
WILL sent a letter to Racine Unified on Thursday claiming that the public school district is “evading its legal obligation to private schools” by providing school drop-off and pickup times to private school students that do not match up with those schools’ start and end times.
“The Racine school district is telling private school students that its plan for busing won’t get them to school on time,” said Sharon Schmeling, executive director for the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools in a press release from WILL. “Missing school time is not acceptable. The district needs to rethink its approach and do what is in the best interest of children.”
Public school districts are required by state law to provide transportation to eligible private elementary and high school students who attend school within the district boundaries.
To keep all students safe this fall in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Racine Unified has had to make some big changes, including to drop-off and pickup times, said Stacy Tapp, Racine Unified’s chief of communications and community engagement. This includes a proposal yet to be approved by the Unified School Board that would significantly change the start times of seven of its own elementary schools.
“We have worked closely with DPI in the development of this plan to ensure it follows state statute,” Tapp said. “We are prepared to begin busing more than 1,700 private and parochial school students next week.”
Different start-up plans
Racine Unified is planning to start the school year virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but many if not all of the private schools within its boundaries are set to welcome kids back into their buildings.
In its letter to Unified, WILL claims that the district plans to drop some students off at 9 a.m., for example, when their classes begin at 8 a.m., or to pick them up at 4 p.m. when school ends at 3:15.
“RUSD knows that it provides transportation for only a small fraction of the total student body at those schools, so that those students who rely upon RUSD for transportation will miss the first hour of school and then will have to remain at their schools for an hour after school is over to wait for transportation home,” WILL says in its letter to Racine Unified.
Tapp said that adding to its transportation challenges this year is its effort to ensure that routes remain consistent whether Unified students are attending in person or not.
“We have developed a plan that is flexible and provides as much stability for ALL families as possible,” Tapp said. “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.”
WILL says that Racine Unified does not have the right to dictate start and end times for the private school for which it coordinates transportation. The organization added that these busing times also raise constitutional concerns as they might cause students to miss religious services at the start of the day.
In the case that drop-off and pick-up times do not work for private and parochial school families, Tapp said the district is offering parents contracts, which reimburse eligible parents for some cost of transporting their own children to school. WILL says that this option does not meet the district's transportation obligations.
Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel for WILL, said that his organization was made aware within the past week that this was a concern at multiple private schools within Unified’s boundaries.
“My impression is that this was sprung on these schools at the last second and put them in a difficult position,” LoCoco said.
He added that WILL would like to see Racine Unified reconsider its transportation approach and “go back to the drawing board” so that private school students will be picked up and dropped off on time.
As of midday Friday, WILL said it had not received a response from Racine Unified.
"We encourage RUSD to resolve this matter in an equitable and expeditious manner and look forward to receiving its response," WILL said in its letter to Racine Unified. "Students will have enough challenges this year without having to worry about whether the bus is going to pick them up on time."
Past legal threats
At least twice in the past, WILL has threatened the district with legal action over private school busing. In early 2015, Racine Unified said it would stop transporting a group of Renaissance School students when the district found out that after it transported those students to a Mount Pleasant school each day, those students were then bused to another school in Kenosha, outside the district. After WILL said it would sue, Unified and Renaissance came to an agreement regarding busing for the remainder of that year.
In fall 2015, after a threat of legal action from WILL, Unified agreed to stop charging a $300 fee to private school students who signed up late for busing.
“The Racine school district is telling private school students that its plan for busing won’t get them to school on time.”
Sharon Schmeling, executive director for the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools
“We have worked closely with DPI in the development of this plan to ensure it follows state statute. We are prepared to begin busing more than 1,700 private and parochial school students next week.”
Stacy Tapp, Racine Unified spokeswoman