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For its third meeting in a row, on April 10 the Board of Education took up the topic of recently presented Transportation Task Force proposals. After roughly 40 minutes of public input and roughly an hour of board discussion, a motion to support those proposals failed.
After the failed motion, roughly half of the attendants at the meeting left. Some attendees, who waited until the end of the evening to speak during the night’s second public participation, shared their support for the board’s vote or voiced concern for future plans.
The Transportation Task Force first presented its proposals at the school board’s March 20 meeting. At that meeting, Hawley Elementary School Principal Christopher Moretti shared a presentation for the Transportation Task Force. He explained the district began looking at sleep study research and changing school start times in the winter of 2016. After research, changes were implemented for the start of this school year, when the school district transitioned from a three-tier bus system to a two-tier bus system. Part of the task force proposals called for staggered start times for Reed Intermediate School and the elementary schools. As outlined in that 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. The Transportation Task Force’s presentation was previously covered by The Newtown Bee.
Following the March 20 presentation, the school board did not vote on the proposals at its April 3 meeting, after some members voiced expressed wanting more information and more time to reflect. 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. The staggered start times proposal would have had no change for afternoon bus routes from this year’s system.
Some members of the public at the April 10 meeting spoke out against long bus routes, shared concerns about Reed students riding with elementary school students, and offered ideas for looking at other towns for solution inspiration.
Multiple educators spoke during public participation. They shared concerns for the added stress the current system puts on teachers and a negative impact on morale in the district this year due to those stresses.
Mr Moretti said everyone wants the middle school and high school to start at 8 am, for the other schools to start at 9 am, for there to be no shuttle system in the district, and for students to ride a bus for a reasonable length of time. The task force, he explained, struggled to find solutions for all of those aspects.
“The solution that was presented was the best solution that eliminated most of the problems and lowered the impact of the remaining problems,” said Mr Moretti.
The decision before the board was complicated, because, Mr Moretti said, there was no “Plan B” in place if the board opted not to support the task force’s proposals. With no other proposals, Mr Moretti explained, there is no plan to oversee students next school year between when buses drop them off and the start of the school day. The topic was also discussed at the previous board meeting, which was previously covered by The Newtown Bee.
Later, Reed Principal Anne Uberti also pointed out that without the task force proposals being put into action for next year, her school is facing the continuation of this year’s practice of having a shortened school day to accommodate bus schedules.
Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said at the April 10 meeting that she knows the board did not have an easy decision to make.
“I don’t think anyone knew, I know I certainly did not know [last July or August], that we would need to be here,” said Dr Rodrigue, referring to last year’s decision to change school start times for older students based on sleep study research.
Everyone in the district was patient this year due to the results of that decision, Dr Rodrigue continued. She also said the district’s administrative team would not promote something it felt was unsafe or unreasonable for students. She then invited school district financial analyst Tanja Vadas and All-Star Transportation co-owner Rich Dufour and Newtown Terminal Manager Alan Calangelo to speak on data prepared following previous board questions.
Dr Rodrigue said the group prepared data on what elementary bus routes would look like next year if the proposals were approved.
“Because there has been so much concern and discussion about these ride times, and [the focus on] 50 minutes [for rides], we just really wanted to put it out there that there is really a small percentage of students that would be riding within that time, and it is not even 50 minutes,” said Ms Vadas.
Ride times were shared in a chart, showing the percentage of projected morning elementary ride times. Ms Vadas pointed out the projected ride times for Hawley had the majority of students spending 40 minutes or less on the bus, with roughly two percent of students riding longer than 46 minutes and less than 49 minutes. According to information provided in the presentation, Middle Gate Elementary School would have 19 percent of students riding between 41 and 45 minutes and four percent of students riding between 46 and 48 minutes. Head O’ Meadow Elementary School was projected to have 14 percent of students riding between 41 and 45 minutes and three percent of students on the bus between 46 and 48 minutes. Sandy Hook School route projections included eight percent of students riding between 41 and 45 minutes and five percent of students riding between 46 and 49 minutes. All other ride times listed were less than 40 minutes.
“The majority of our students will be riding 40 minutes or less,” said Ms Vadas. “Eighty-Five percent of our elementary students in the [morning] will be riding 40 minutes or less.”
Last year’s average bus ride was roughly 30 minutes, according to Ms Vadas. Mr Dufour said the predictions were made using data from this school year.
Mr Dufour later said this school year’s routes were underestimated, “because we were trying to have a certain number. I was trying to give someone something they wanted to hear.” For next year’s projected routes, he said “a lot of time” was worked into the projections to allow transportation between schools. He further explained the projected routes could work out to be shorter; but he did not want to project them shorter and have them work out to be longer.
“I feel very comfortable with the data, especially given that we have the information we have this year,” said Mr Dufour.
At one point later, when Mr Dufour and Reed Assistant Principal Jill Beaudry were answering a question about the efficiency of bus drop-offs at Reed, a member of the public left abruptly, expressing anger about “talking in circles” and over buses going to two schools in the morning.
School Board Deliberates
During the board’s deliberation on the motion to support the task force’s proposals, board member John Vouros asked for a projected cost associated with watching Newtown’s elementary school students between when they are dropped off at school and the start of school. According to Dr Rodrigue, it would cost the district an additional $87,000 next year to pay paraeducators to watch elementary students before the start of the school day. According to other discussion at the meeting, Newtown’s elementary school teachers are not contracted to work for that time. A “holding period” of keeping students in another area of the school before school starts was discussed, but, during the evening’s second public participation, Sandy Hook School Principal Kathy Gombos said the elementary principals are against that concept.
Board of Education member Debbie Leidlein said she was ready to vote in favor of the proposals, because she has seen the administrative team work through solutions and she expected what children would experience on bus rides would be no different than previous years.
Board Secretary Dan Cruson, Jr, shared concerns with implementing the proposals without more definitive information. While he said he knows how much work went into researching the task force proposals, he also said he was uncertain of the correct course of action for the school board.
Board Vice Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites shared frustration that after asking for more time to consider last year’s transportation proposals, she was now facing a transportation decision that she did not see a solution for. She also said she feels horrible that teachers were told last year the change to the transportation system would not impact them.
“That was not this board telling you that,” said Ms Harriman-Stites. “We were told the same thing… if this does not pass I will personally work to make sure that you will not feel the same tension that you are feeling this year.”
Board member Andrew Clure said he believes there is a better solution.
“To me, there’s got to be something else,” said Mr Clure.
Echoing that sentiment, board member Dan Delia questioned the board’s “rush” to decide. He proposed the board should “dig deeper” to find a solution that could work for all “stakeholders.”
Mr Vouros said he did not hear “any other fabulous ideas about how this can be solved.” He shared his support for the task force proposals, adding that there is no perfect solution.
Board Chair Michelle Embree Ku said over the course of two years and two different task forces, the school board was presented with 18 transportation proposals and seven of those proposals included cost options. She said she would support the motion, because Sandy Hook School has been running under the proposed scenario this year “and it has been okay.”
“Many communities have been divided by this school start time issue, and we are not alone in this difficult discussion,” said Ms Ku. “It happens in any community that discusses this change.”
A motion by Mr Delia to defer the board’s decision on the proposals failed, with only Mr Delia and Mr Clure voting for the motion.
The board then voted to approve the task force proposals, and the motion failed in a 4 to 3 vote, with Ms Ku, Ms Leidlein, and Mr Vouros voting in favor.
Near the end of the meeting, Ms Ku said she expects the school board to bring up the topic of alternatives to the task force proposals at its next scheduled meeting, set for May 1.