Supt. Victor Mercurio unveiled a potential two-tier bus schedule Tuesday night that would have have all four elementary schools start and end at the same time. Cole and EGHS would continue to be paired in the other tier. There is no plan to vote on the proposal at this time.
Under the proposal, all four elementary schools – Eldredge, Hanaford, Meadowbrook and Frenchtown – would start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 2:55 p.m.
The plan would solve what for many Hanaford and Meadowbrook Farms parents has been a long-standing grievance – that their children’s school day starts after 9 a.m. and doesn’t end until after 3 p.m. But the proposal would mean the average ride time on the bus will double for those students and would increase by 15 minutes for students of Eldredge and Frenchtown schools. That’s because the requirement behind this proposal was to keep it as budget neutral as possible; only one special ed bus need to be added to the EG bus fleet, at a cost of $70,200 a year.
For that reason alone, it is very unlikely the two-tier plan will be enacted this September. The 2014-15 budget did not include money for an extra special ed bus. Any additional money would only come from the General Assembly, which has yet to finalize education aid to cities and towns, and school officials said they did not want to anticipate getting any more than was budgeted.
The overall transportation budget is $1.5 million, 5 percent of the entire schools budget.
“That’s money we’re not spending inside the classroom,” said School Committee Chairman David Green. “I think that’s why we’re so sensitive to spending more on transportation.”
Even if the financial problem was solved, school officials acknowledged changing to a two-tier system would require getting parents on board.
Right now, Cole Middle School and EGHS both start just after 7:30 a.m. and get out around 2 p.m., Eldredge and Frenchtown start at 8:35 a.m. and get out at 2:35 p.m., and Hanaford and Meadowbrook start at 9:15 and 9:20 respectively and get out at 3:15 and 3:20. It’s a system that’s been in place ever since the elementary schools were “paired” in 1989 – going from having four independent K-6 elementary schools to having two sets of paired schools – in response to the population growth west of South County Trail (Route 2) and the subsequent crowding at Frenchtown.
“The initial impetus for a lot of parents was to address the fact that two of the elementary schools started, in their view, extraordinarily late,” said Mercurio. “The initial request was, can we do something that alleviates the impact of kids getting out of school that late. Certainly in the wintertime it’s almost dark by the time they get out of school.”
He noted other benefits as well, including the ability for teachers at different schools to more easily share planning time and an ease in scheduling for the so-called “itinerants,” teachers of art, music and phys ed who have to travel between buildings. Another benefit would be a 25-minute-longer school day for elementary school students.
For all the advantages, the downsides would be the longer average ride times – from 20 minutes to 40 minutes for Hanaford and MFS students and from 25-30 minutes to 40-45 minutes for Eldredge and Frenchtown.
Also, for the Adirondack Drive neighborhood, there would be four fewer bus stops. Instead of driving around the Adirondack-Cavalier loop (to the four stops along the way), the bus would make one stop, at Adirondack and Monroe Drive. For students at the farthest reaches of that loop, the Monroe stop would be up to a half-mile away.
“That is not an insignificant changes for those students,” Mercurio said.
School Committee Chairman David Green said he’d learned parents take bus stop changes very seriously.
“You wouldn’t believe what amount of interest there is when you change a bus stop by 100 feet,” he said. “This year, there were inspections and visits by the superintendent, by the town manager, by the chief of police, by the two resource officers, by members of the School Committee, because we moved one bus stop 150 feet.”
Member Mary Ellen Winter said she thought the longer bus ride times would lead more parents to drive their children to school.
“I just look at the times – 25 to 30 minutes to 40 to 45 – you’ll have first graders on a bus for 45 minutes in the morning,” she said. “We already have a lot of parents who drive their kids to school. You might double that amount of parents who drive their kids to school if they know their 7-year-old is going to be on the bus for 45 minutes to start the day.”