The St. Louis County School Board is violating a commitment it made, and is risking a multi-million dollar lawsuit and potentially disastrous media coverage, all to save a paltry $12,000 a year on its transportation costs.
It’s one of the most troubling decisions this school district has made in years.
Here’s the rub. In deciding to run at least four buses daily up and down Alango Road, the school district is openly disregarding hazards that the district itself identified in the environmental assessment worksheet it prepared as part of the permitting for the North Woods School. Here’s how the school district described the dangers: “Alango Road has segments with insufficient sight distance and a narrow bridge, both circumstances that would require correction before Alango Road could support significantly more traffic.”
As local residents can attest, traffic on the road has increased significantly (most likely by a factor of several times). As they could also attest—and as we have verified— St. Louis County public works has not addressed any of the hazards identified in the EAW.
It’s no surprise that traffic on the road has jumped significantly since the opening of the school last fall. The road provides a four-mile shortcut for anyone coming to the school from the west, which was a point made by township officials and local residents at the time of the controversial school permitting process. A four-mile shortcut, each way, adds up at a time of high fuel prices, which is the reason that the district’s superintendent and transportation director decided to run district buses on the road as well.
But saving money is a poor justification for putting students in harm’s way. The district could cut transportation costs in the Tower-Soudan area by using the ice road from the Vermilion Reservation to Tower, but we certainly hope that school officials aren’t planning to avail themselves of that option, too. There are situations where safety overrides cost-cutting, and the use of Alango Road is one such instance.
The decision to use the road is also in direct violation of a commitment the district made as part of the permitting process. As their own EAW reads: “To minimize impacts and safety hazards, no bus traffic will be routed along Alango Road other than that necessary to serve students residing in homes along the roadway.” To the best of my knowledge, the district is not picking up any students along the road— and at most that would justify no more than a single bus traveling along Alango Road. Are district officials really that unconcerned about how this trail of broken promises surrounding their controversial restructuring plan appears to the public?
But there’s much more at issue here than that. Because the district acknowledged the hazards of Alango Road, and did so in writing as part of a formal proceeding, it’s decision to continue to use the road to transport students is, by its very nature, a legally negligent act— one that leaves the district wide open to a tort claim in the event of a serious accident, particularly one involving one of its own buses or a staff vehicle.
Greaney resident and retired engineer Dennis Peterson illustrated this point to me based on his own work for area taconite plants. When it came time to plan for plant upgrades, Peterson said most projects were classified as high priority, medium priority, or low priority. But there was also a special category called “safety concerns,” and any project classified as a safety concern was approved immediately, regardless of cost. What the plant managers understood is that once they had identified a safety concern, failure to address it left them subject to expensive payouts in the event an employee was injured, or worse.
It’s also worth noting that insurance may not protect the school district in the event of a claim, depending on their coverage. Some liability policies provide protection against lawsuits in cases of gross negligence, while others do not. School officials in ISD 2142 should be in touch with their insurance carrier to be sure that, if they intend to continue to act in such a negligent manner, they are not leaving the school district, or themselves individually, exposed to potentially uninsured damage claims. A multi-million dollar settlement would not be at all unusual if an individual were killed, or permanently disabled as a result of a school-related accident on Alango Road.
This is hardly idle speculation. The fact that at least two car crashes, and several near misses, have already been reported along the road since the school opened just seven months ago, demonstrates how real the risks are in this case.
School officials can certainly ignore the commitment they made to limit risks to students. The only effect, for now, is the continued deterioration of public confidence in the district’s decision-making. But when a serious accident does occur, which is almost inevitable given the hazards along Alango Road, district officials will be left without any good justification for a very poor decision— and the district will be completely exposed to a very legitimate, and expensive, legal claim.
Here’s the bottom line: failure to fix this situation borders on recklessness.