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Changes to Mt. Abe busing fall short for the year

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June 7, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — The school boards from the five Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANeSU) towns  of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro are creating a committee to study the district’s transportation needs and how to accommodate a longer school day at Mount Abraham Union High School.

But at a Tuesday evening meeting, the consensus among school board members was to not go forward in the coming school year with an administration-backed plan to achieve the longer day by doing separate bus runs for high school and elementary students.

“For this year, it’s not going to happen,” said Lanny Smith of New Haven, chairman of the Mount Abraham Union High School board. “The question is, should it be pursued in the future?”

The informal consensus to form a committee was reached during a meeting of the Mount Abe school board on Tuesday night, although members of ANeSU elementary school boards were present as well.

Administrators touted the proposal to “decouple” the bus routes as addressing a number of concerns, chiefly a lack of instructional time at the high school, by having separate buses for high school students and elementary school students and having the elementary school days end earlier than the high school’s.

But area residents at several recent meetings were worried about the effect on families who would have to make new arrangements for childcare, since Mount Abe students who may act as sitters would not get home until after younger children. Some area residents also disagreed with plans to shorten high school bus routes by leaving several high school students at drop-off points, which in some cases might leave them walking home or waiting to be picked up by busy roads.

Superintendent Evelyn Howard explained that there are already several locations where the buses do not go directly to the homes of students. “In many instances, it’s not door-to-door,” she said. “There is a variety (within) what we call door-to-door service.” However, there would be many more students in that position under the plan that was proposed in recent months.

Tuesday’s meeting drew more than 30 board members and area residents to the packed MAUHS library to weigh in on the issue. The committee that will be formed will most likely include representatives of all boards and members of the public, and will study both transportation issues and the school day needs.

Some at the meeting objected to that, saying that the controversial decoupling idea would make it difficult to devote much attention to the school day length. But others argued that without separating the bus routes, any change to the school day at Mount Abe would lengthen the day at the elementary schools, already longer than usual.

“It’s got to be just one package. I don’t see how it can’t be,” said Bonita Bedard, a member of the Robinson Elementary School board in Starksboro.

The plan that recently drew so much criticism was reached after school administrators advised the supervisory union that separating the schedules in the afternoon would be an easier change to make than in the morning, Howard said. The proposed bus routes that used drop-off points to make shorter routes work were chosen as administrators sought a way to make the change with as little impact on expenditures as possible.

Some board members and area residents said that making the Mount Abe school day start earlier in the morning than elementary schools would be easier for families to handle instead of ending later in the evening. “Instead of the afternoon, how about we look at the morning?” asked Dinah Short of Monkton.

As an alternative, several board members and area residents suggested the study committee look at changing things around within the school day. The teacher advisory program at the middle and high schools drew some criticism. Middle school students now start the day with a 17-minute period with a teacher advisory program where a relatively small number of students check in with the same teacher on a daily basis. Some at the meeting felt it could be better used as instructional time.

MAUHS Principal Paulette Bogan said that the program served two useful purposes: building community in the school, and offering advocacy for the students so they are guaranteed to have at least one adult in the building who knows them pretty well. It has existed at the middle school for several years, and Bogan said the administration plans to extend it to the high school.

This is not the first time the district has tried to separate the bus routes. Smith said that the school board has been discussing the issue off and on since the 1980s, and the current busing system has been a major obstacle to any proposals for a longer school day.

“That yellow bus has controlled us for years,” he said.

Under the current system, all district school buses leave MAUHS at 2:40 p.m. and go to the elementary schools of the various towns, pick up the younger students, and drop all students off together. This system results in a school day that is longer at the elementary schools than the high school, which administrators say is difficult to handle for both age groups.

Administrators also believe that having students of all ages riding buses together causes a higher rate of bullying than would otherwise happen. Robinson Elementary School used to use cameras in the school bus to cut down on discipline problems, but according to Principal Dan Noel, they have not been needed in recent years.

The last decoupling committee that got as far as a detailed proposal wrapped up its work in 1994. Four reasons for a busing change were given then: the elementary school day was too long, there was no flexibility in scheduling, there were behavior problems, and elementary school teachers need collaborative planning time.

Since then, another reason has popped up. Administrators say that untangling the bus routes will make it much easier to meet the requirements of Act 130, a state law that recently changed school funding methods. Union schools like MAUHS are now funded by one tax rate that is based on the budgets of both their local elementary schools and their portion of the high school budget. Act 130 creates separate tax rates for the local elementary schools and the union schools.

And while it is now possible to calculate a value for how much of a resource used by all schools goes to the union schools, like the buses, supervisory union business manager Greg Burdick says those calculations would be much more straightforward if the schools’ busing was done separately.

In addition, one of those original reasons to separate the bus routes has grown in importance. Assistant Superintendent Nancy Cornell said the desire for more time in the school day at the high school and middle school became even more important in the wake of a consultants’ study of the math curriculum in the district, which ANeSU administrators received last summer.

The study strongly recommended more instructional time for math, especially in middle school. Today, middle school students at Mount Abe have math only on alternating days.

“The new push to decouple goes back to the math consulting. (The consultants) said, ‘Until you grapple with the time issue, there will be real limits on what you can do,’” Cornell said.

While no one at Tuesday’s meeting voiced opposition to the idea of lengthening the school day at Mount Abe, how to make that happen will remain a thorny issue. Wendy McArdle of the Robinson school board said that the research of a study committee will not solve the problem by itself.

“It’s not necessarily going to bring about any clear, black and white options,” she said.

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