Board OKs bus schedules

MERRIMACK – High school classes will start 10 minutes earlier and the school district’s last classes – for grades 5 and 6 next year – will be dismissed 25 minutes later under a transportation plan approved Monday night.

The School Board voted 4-0, with one abstention, to adopt the recommendation of committee of parents for a new bus schedule for the 2004-05 school year. The recommendation – Plan A of three plans considered – was based on a survey sent to every home in town with a child attending public school.

New board member Emily Coburn abstained because she said she hadn’t participated in previous discussions and didn’t feel that she had enough information to cast an informed vote.

The new schedule was needed because the district is reorganizing next year. A new middle school for grades 7 and 8 will open and Mastricola Middle School, which now houses grades 6 through 8, will be converted to an upper elementary school for grades 5 and 6.

To accommodate the reorganization, the school district added a third bus run, and an additional $199,000 to its transportation costs.
“Is it the perfect plan? Nope. But it’s the one that addresses the issues,” said Tina DeMember, a member of the Transition Parent Group, a 12-member body composed of four parents from each elementary school in town.

Two of the members also had students attending Merrimack High School, said DeMember, who presented the committee’s recommendation to the School Board.

Under the adopted plan:

– Grades 7-12 will be grouped in one bus run, with the first pickup at 6:30 a.m. and the last drop-off at 2:55 p.m.
– High school classes will start at 7:29 a.m. and the school day will end at 2:15 p.m.
– Middle school classes will start at 7:30 a.m. and the school day will end at 2 p.m.
– Readiness through grade 4 would be grouped in a second run, with the first pickup at 7:45 a.m. and last drop-off at 3:20 p.m.
– The school day for Mastricola, Reeds Ferry and Thorntons Ferry elementary schools will start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 2:45 p.m.
– Grades 5 and 6 will ride the same bus, with the first pickup at 8:35 a.m. and last drop-off at 4 p.m., the latest in the school district.
– The school day at the restructured Mastricola Upper Elementary School will start at 9:10 a.m. and end at 3:25 p.m.

The survey on which the recommendation was based was sent to 2,766 homes in early March, DeMember said. A total of 1,288 surveys were returned, a rate of nearly 47 percent, which School Board Chairman Ken Coleman called the highest response rate ever for a parent survey.

The survey, besides asking which of three plans they favored, gauged how parents felt about the importance of various issues.

The issue noted as important on most of the surveys, 82 percent, was time leftover after the school day for homework.

Issues also identified in the survey responses as the most important to parents were allowing sufficient time after school for sports and other activities, creating less-crowded buses and separating the younger from the older students.

More than 500 parents wrote comments of some sort on the surveys, which school officials called an extremely high number.

The transportation schedule was expected to be a hot topic among parents. When the School Board first began discussing the schedule in fall, board member Rosemarie Rung said she received “more calls and letters and e-mails on this than on any other issue, including the tax bill.”

The early high school start time was debated among board members then, and several rejected schedules of a dozen the committee first discussed included a later start.

But those were discarded because of other problems, such as a dismissal that would leave little time for after-school activities, DeMember said.

Under the adopted schedule, the last child would be dropped off before sunset on the shortest day of the year – 4:11 p.m. on Dec. 21, she said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or