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Board of Education Chairman Keith Alexander said the district is still holding to its “two-week expectation” of refining the new transportation configuration since the start of the school year on August 28, at the board’s meeting on September 5.
The school board voted at the start of the meeting to add transportation as a topic of discussion, in order, according to Vice Chair Michelle Embree Ku, to allow parents the chance to speak about the topic during the first portion of public participation.
Over the course of the meeting, six parents voiced concerns regarding bus times and more.
“We are six days into the school year, and my children have been late every day,” said parent Lucia Kortze, adding that being late to school in the morning has caused her Reed Intermediate School children to miss morning announcements.
Ms Kortze also voiced concerns about lost time to the school day, how the system of transporting Reed students to the elementary schools will work during inclement weather, and the speed the bus has been going with her children on it, which she said she tracked using an app on a phone.
Later, parent Nancy White asked if elementary school children could be kept in their classroom longer, rather than put on a bus to wait for Reed students to arrive, at least until the system can be tweaked. Ms White also questioned how the new two-tier system was “cost neutral” compared to last year’s three-tier transportation system.
Parent Amy Twitchell said the school start time change has been an improvement for some, like her eighth grader, but she would not call it a success. She is also the mother of a fifth grader and third grader, and she said the school start time change has created a shift in the town’s sense of community, with some interactions becoming “nasty.”
“This is what happens when a community of parents is kind of set up against each other, when one benefits and the other one doesn’t,” Ms Twitchell said.
While sharing her report to the school board, Interim Superintendent of Schools Lorrie Rodrigue said she visited all of Newtown’s schools during the first week.
“I was truly impressed by how acclimated the students were by day two,” said Dr Rodrigue, adding later that she has heard from parents in the district about varying transportation concerns. “We all knew coming into this that this transportation system, as something extremely new in Newtown, would not be easy, nor would we be able to solve all of the issues overnight.”
The new transportation configuration, she said, requires organization between the schools. Dr Rodrigue also said when the School Start Time Committee looked at options for reconfiguring the district’s transportation system a “nonnegotiable” was that there would be no loss of instructional time.
“This is why building instructional leaders looked at their schedules last year in order to ensure that this would not happen as a result,” said Dr Rodrigue.
With the new system, Dr Rodrigue said an adjustment time was worked into the dismissal process for staff and students to learn how to safely coordinate the new process.
Dr Rodrigue said she and All-Star Transportation have fielded a range of concerns since the start of the year, with “many of the responses after that, [but] not everyone” sharing improvements since the third day.
Traffic and buses that have dropped off students late in the morning have been monitored, according to Dr Rodrigue. For some bus schedules, Dr Rodrigue said bus stop times have been moved earlier by a few minutes, which resulted in those buses arriving roughly ten minutes earlier at the schools.
“We are thinking of doing that with others as we go,” said Dr Rodrigue.
From the first day to the fifth day, Dr Rodrigue said the final departure times improved.
“On average, the buses departing elementary schools have left at approximately 3:55 pm. The last student drop-off has approximately been at 4:38 pm,” said Dr Rodrigue. “Today it was later, and that was mainly because Reed let out at their normal time.”
For the first week of school, Dr Rodrigue explained, Reed was released ten minutes earlier to allow time for students and staff to learn the new system. With the change to Reed’s regular release time on Tuesday, September 5, Dr Rodrigue said buses did not leave elementary schools until roughly 4 pm. The last drop-off at home was reported at 4:44 pm on Tuesday, according to Dr Rodrigue.
“The average ride time, and we have been monitoring this, is between 32 and 43 minutes. We do have two buses that are just under an hour at 57 [minutes],” said Dr Rodrigue. “That’s not acceptable to us, as well, so we are looking at what we can do.”
Dr Rodrigue also spoke about eight buses used for transporting students to St Rose of Lima School. The average ride times for those students are between 20 and 35 minutes, she said, and there are approximately 10 to 29 students riding the 47-passenger buses.
By the end of the second week of school, Dr Rodrigue said she hoped to have more issues resolved. The second week, she said, would also offer other ideas for how to tweak the system.
Dr Rodrigue said the district is listening and trying to deal with each issue it learns of.
“I just really want to appeal to you to give us this week. We are going to try to resolve as many issues as we can,” she said.
Some school board members asked questions about the transportation issues. Member Rebekah Harriman-Stites said she heard from one parent that their elementary child waited on a school bus for 23 minutes before the bus departed from the school. Both Ms Harriman-Stites and member John Vouros asked Dr Rodrigue to have principals communicate more with parents. Ms Harriman-Stites said Hawley Elementary School Principal Christopher Moretti was communicating daily and she found it helpful for parents.
Mr Alexander said he expects the school board will discuss transportation at its next meeting, too, which is scheduled for September 19.
While the official enrollment for the district will be shared in October, Dr Rodrigue later told the school board enrollment is roughly two percent higher than in-house projections anticipated. She shared there are 4,313 students enrolled in the district.
The school board also heard an update on the Newtown High School auditorium renovation project from Michelle Hiscavich, the district’s director of visual and performing arts. Ms Hiscavich shared pictures from the timeline of the project and said the high school is hoping to have use of the space by the end of November.
Also at the meeting, the school board unanimously approved its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the next five years. For the 2018-19 year a $1,685,400 project to replace Middle Gate Elementary School’s roof in the 1964 and 1994 sections is slated. Projects in the second year are a $1,814,720 project to replace a boiler in the 1921 section and a lighting energy project at Hawley Elementary School, and a $954,000 project for a main boiler replacement at NHS. The third year of the plan has $4,719,120 listed to work on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) renovations. In the fourth year of the plan $1,060,000 is listed to replace/restore the stadium turf at NHS and $3,093,300 for work at Newtown Middle School for ventilation and air conditioning for the auditorium and cafeteria along with replacing the roof units from 1998. The final year of the plan, 2022-23, has a $2 million project to install high efficiency gas boilers and a LED lighting conversion project at Reed.