2 bus plans, 1 decision for board

Bus start proposals

MERRIMACK – Like Shakespeare’s famed Prince of Denmark, school officials in the next few months face a great philosophical question: 2B, or not 2B.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged parents remains to be seen. But for now, the thought that no option will please all must give School Board members pause.

The issue: how to adjust school bus times now that this hamlet will have a new middle school and upper elementary opening in fall. The board took up the question earlier this month, and the recommendation favored by a transportation committee prompted many parents since then to take arms against what they perceived as a boiling sea of trouble.

“I’ve gotten more calls and letters and e-mails on this than on any other issue, including the tax bill,” member Rosemarie Rung said Monday as the School Board continued its discussions about the bus plan.

The board agreed to seek input from parents through parent-teacher groups from each of the district’s six schools, as well as from students, on what have been termed options 2 and 2B. A plan will be set afterward – but it has to be done soon, board Chairman Ken Coleman warned.

“We need to put this to bed soon so we can start building expectations about what (parents) are going to be facing next year,” he said.

School officials noted that a transportation committee, which included principals from each of the six schools as well as Laidlaw Transportation Co. officials, worked as much as 80 hours to devise the options the board is now considering.

At the board’s Dec. 1 meeting, the committee presented a plan that would add a third bus run for the 2004-05 school year. The proposed plan would have a separate run for grades 7 to 12; grades 5 and 6; and grades Readiness through four.

The plan had middle-school students start at 7:20 a.m., a half-hour earlier than this year, and high-school students start at 7:19 a.m., 20 minutes earlier than now.

Board members expressed concerns about the earlier start times, and so-called Option 2 was revised to make the start time at the high school 7:29 a.m., within 10 minutes of what it is now. The middle school and elementary school times also were adjusted be closer to the current schedule.

Then another scenario arose – Option 2B. That plan pushes up the start times for the middle school and elementary students and makes the start time at the high school the same. But as a trade-off, students in the lower grades would arrive home later in the afternoon.

Devising a schedule has school officials scrambling to set priorities. The School Board will have to decide what’s more important, later start times, earlier dismissal times, or trying to prevent elementary and high school students from riding the same buses.

The board could solve all those needs by adding a fourth run, but that would be too expensive, Coleman said Monday.

The proposed budget approved by the board includes $199,000 for additional transportation costs, which would cover the proposed options with three bus runs.

“There is no physical way to satisfy all needs,” Coleman said. “For every advantage somebody wants, there’s going to be a disadvantage to trade.”

Rung noted one big disadvantage inherent in some of the options.

“If you’re going to start the upper elementary school at 9:20, you’re not going to need buses,” she noted. “You’re going to need massive before-school care.”

Though parents will have time to offer their two cents on the issue, several spoke about concerns during the public input portion of Monday’s meeting.

Becky Lawrence of Greatstone Drive said she’s concerned about her teenagers standing at the side of the road in the dark waiting for a bus.

“Whether they’re high school students or not, it’s dangerous to be standing on the side of the road, especially in winter,” she said.

Tom Larvia of Christina Drive said working parents have strained their flex-work schedules to the breaking point so that one parent can be home in the morning and another in the afternoon. He said parents need to be kept informed as the board works to set the transportation schedule.