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After Board of Education members voiced concern with wanting more information and more time to reflect, it held off deciding at its April 3 meeting whether to vote on proposals previously presented by the district’s Transportation Task Force.
At its March 20 meeting, Hawley Elementary School Principal Christopher Moretti shared a presentation from the school district’s Transportation Task Force. that outlined issues with the current two-tier bus system and solutions the task force proposes for next school year.
Overall, Mr Moretti said at the March 20 meeting, “We feel we eliminated as many concerns as we could. We feel we reduced the impact of those unsolvable issues, and that we are not going to give up on a great plan in search of a perfect plan.”
As pointed out during the April 3 public participation, the proposals also increased expected ride times for elementary school students for morning routes. Sandy Hook Elementary School’s ride times would remain the same as this year, because the school is already running on the scenario proposed for the other elementary schools next year. There would be no change in the plan for afternoon bus routes from this year’s system.
Part of the task force proposal calls for staggered start times for Reed Intermediate School and the elementary schools. As outlined in the presentation, Reed’s day would run from 8:55 am to 3:27 pm, and the elementary schools would run from 9:05 am to 3:37 pm. This change would restore Reed’s school hours to its previous length, prior to this school year’s system.
Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said she believes the Transportation Task Force worked diligently and respectfully “to land in a space that at least would be safe, address most of the concerns since the onset of the year, [makes] ride times better and more equitable between [elementary schools] and Reed, and supports staff issues.”
The district, Dr Rodrigue continued, has looked at “every avenue” regarding solutions for the current transportation system.
“I think, honestly, we have really done all that we can do,” said Dr Rodrigue.
School board members Andrew Clure and Dan Delia both said they would like more time to ask All-Star Transportation, the district’s main transportation provider, for more information. After further deliberation by the board, Vice Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites said she would like more time to reflect on a decision.
After two years of working on two task force efforts, Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku said she wanted to share some of her own research.
“I want to remind you, the first task force came up with the very solution that this task force is recommending,” said Ms Ku. “What happened is, the former superintendent [Dr Joseph V. Erardi, Jr] came up with something that he thought would be better. We went with what he thought he could do, but it truly was this plan that the first task force came up with the first time around. Through two years of that, this is where we are.”
Ms Ku said she thinks everyone would agree that no one wants students to have long bus rides. To look into what is a reasonable length for a bus ride, she looked at the websites for districts similar to Newtown. According to the research she shared at the meeting, Ms Ku found Newtown’s projected ride times to be comparable with New Milford, Oxford, New Fairfield, and Bethel. She also found the average ride time from the first pick up to the first bell “is highly dependent on the population density of the town.”
Ms Ku also used the task force’s proposal for morning routes to estimate that roughly 3.6 percent, or 50 elementary school students, would be on a bus run for 46 to 50 minutes. According to her handout, 82 percent of elementary school students would be on the bus for a maximum ride length of 25 to 45 minutes in the morning.
After deliberation, the school board’s motion to accept the Transportation Task Force’s proposal to stagger school Reed and elementary school start times and accept its other proposals was withdrawn.
During both of the public participation portions of the meeting, people mostly voiced frustrations with the task force’s proposed transportation plan. One resident said he did not want “a 50-minute bus ride to become our town’s gold standard.”
Resident Joe Skrzypczak asked the school board to think about its options.
Sharing that last year she was vocally against the current system, resident Kristen Alesevich said while she supports the high school and middle school students getting more sleep she is against the added level of stress she believes the proposed system will mean for families like her family. She also added that she appreciated the school board’s previous decision to maintain an April vacation, but she asked the board members to stick to a calendar when it is created. (An article on the school board’s votes to set graduation dates for Newtown High School and Newtown Middle School along with setting a plan for the end of this year’s school calendar is available here.)
Resident John Feder said the scope given to the task force was wrong.
“The scope is we need more money, we need more buses,” said Mr Feder.
During the first public participation, Newtown Federation of Teachers President Tom Kuroski said an original charge by Dr Erardi last year was that “the cost of buses was not going to increase.”
“Having that as the framework for any decision making process really handcuffed the committee for making any meaningful decisions with the best interest of all students in mind,” said Mr Kuroski. “Knowing a town as large as Newtown and trying to manufacture a system that is going to satisfy everybody, I think, [is] totally unrealistic to do, without saying… we should probably invest in more buses to make this happen the right way.”
Near the end of the meeting, Mr Kuroski spoke again, reflecting on the board’s withdrawn motion to support the task force’s proposals. Before the start of the 2017-18 school year, Mr Kuroski said teachers were not made aware of how the transportation changes would affect them. The elementary school teachers started the year off feeling responsible for elementary school students arriving to school ahead of the start of the day, due to the shuttle system’s original timing between the elementary schools and Reed. He was bombarded by phone calls from teachers. Some, he said, did not have enough time to go to the bathroom during the day.
“I was dumbfounded,” said Mr Kuroski. He added later, “[For] what these teachers do for our students every day, I cannot applaud them enough.”
Mr Kuroski said he was disappointed over the board’s deliberation at the meeting of maintaining the current busing system if the task force’s proposals are not implemented.
“For the consideration to be what the plan was this year,” Mr Kuroski continued, “being that we did not agree to this. We never said this was okay… I went immediately to Dr Rodrigue and I said this is not working. This is not the way this was supposed to be.”
After that discussion, Mr Kuroski said he asked for patience from the elementary school teachers based on a confidence the district and school board would “make this right for everybody in the best of their ability.” But he said he does not see maintaining the current bus system as an “Option B” from not supporting the task force’s proposals.
Mr Moretti also spoke during the second public participation. He said the board should ask itself if it does not accept staggered school times, what it will do.
“Because it will not be what is going on this year,” said Mr Moretti. “Kids will not be going to classrooms. They won’t. They can’t.”
Now students go to their classrooms, but Mr Moretti describe next year’s option without staggering school start times is having elementary school students going to a holding place in their school before going to their classroom.
Fellow task force member Katie Burke asked during the first public participation that if the board decides to stagger school start times that it track the mental health of the town’s younger students.
“I think the plan in place this year, while not perfect, it works,” said Ms Burke, adding that the administration worked hard this school year to correct issues with the system. Later she said, “My ask for you is to choose investing in our teachers and staff and keep our students in school a little longer rather than on a bus.”
Board of Education members discussed bringing the topic up again at its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, April 10.