Solving transportation funding issues will likely be a lengthy process, according to Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak who offered some short-term objectives and long-term goals to the School Committee on Wednesday, Nov. 16, while focusing on it’s impact on learning time.
“This isn’t a multi-year process of looking at some things,” he said, noting that transportation has been an issue since he assumed the role of superintended on July 1, 2018. “There’s an issue every year of transportation … we have to get this right.”
While there has been a lot of “this is what we used to do” involved in past discussions, the focus of a working group among Committee members is to make changes that will be run by the panel. Transparency and communication with parents and town stakeholders is central to the process so residents know exactly what they’re voting on at Town Meeting, including what any changes would cost, he said.
For the short-term, Szymaniak said, includes compliance with the state law requiring 75-percent capacity on school buses. The district is now at 76.13 percent of students eligible to ride the bus as of Oct. 28, based on routes and capacity.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re riding the bus,” he said. “They are eligible to ride the bus.”
Committee member Hillary Kniffen said she reads the law as saying buses should not be over 75 percent of capacity, not that the district is required to put that many students on a bus.
Szymaniak said he has been advised by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that, when he signs off on such a report, it is expected that buses are running at 75-percent of capacity.
“If you don’t equal or exceed the 75 percent, you don’t get reimbursement,” Committee Chair Christopher Howard said to clarify the law’s intent. “They wrote it kind of backwards.”
Routes have been designed to run no more than 25 minutes, according to Szymaniak, but Indian Head has seen the most changes over the past three years, which has lengthened time on the bus for some students.
“This is horrible,” Kniffen said. “There’s no consideration to the seven square miles that Whitman is and the 15 square miles that Hanson is. We’ve got kids on a bus [in Hanson] for 40 minutes.”
Member Beth Stafford noted that it’s not as bad for Hanson Middle School. Kniffen also noted that Whitman elementary routes are about 15 minutes long.
Transportation issues and current start times have also resulted in 30 more hours for students Hanson Middle School than at Whitman Middle School, a situation that Committee member Dawn Byers said is a violation of school district Policy J-B for providing an equal educational opportunity for all students.
“If all of us aren’t outraged over what’s happened here, then I ask why,” she said. “Students in the same grade are not getting an equal opportunity.”
She also argues that the half-hour more over 180 days equals 90 hours of more access to school, to teachers, to professionals – even if it’s a “brain break” of a recess that other students aren’t getting.
Byers does not advocate taking the extra time away from Hanson students, but giving it to Whitman students, and lauded Szymaniak for presenting some ideas toward that end.
“This is an ongoing conversation,” Szymaniak said, noting contracted busing and special education concerns could have an impact on any decision.
A survey on the start times and conferences is now being circulated to parents and students.
The Hanson Middle issue was brought up during a Whitman Building Committee meeting.
“This started in 2017-18 when the fifth-graders went to Hanson Middle School,” Szymaniak said.
Kniffen pointed out that a fifth-grader at Hanson Middle starts the day at 7:40 a.m., and a fifth-grader’s day at Duval Elementary begins at 9:15 a.m.
“The best compromise is what it’s going to be,” Stafford said.
“We’re living on decisions made that were strictly financial and not necessarily in the best interests of kids,” Szymaniak said. “We have to think things through because I think some of the decisions of the past, while valid, might not have been thought through for the next generation.”
He said he wants to fix the problems with transportation and start times, but wants to do it right so they do not turn out to be short-term decisions.
“This is the challenge,” Szymaniak said. “If you look at the root cause of where we’re at — and I don’t have a solution to this at the moment — it’s because we need 20 buses at the high school and then have to distribute out … to get to their next destination to pick up [younger students] causes a ripple effect in our transportation.”
A short-term move has put monitors on the Indian Head buses to ensure students behave, while as part of the long-term solution, the district is using the website schoolbusmanager.com, which overlays on top of Google to calculate more workable routes.
“We have good communication [with the towns],” Szymaniak said. “But what I think we need to do is come forth with a protocol and guidelines that can give direction to the towns.”
The School Committee also received information about potential scenarios for changing school start times and heard a review of district enrollment trends. Szymaniak said he would be looking to parents for feedback in start times and parent-teacher conferences, meanwhile, enrollment numbers were on the agenda.
“The numbers are more positive than I have seen in the past,” Symaniak said.
As of Oct. 1, 2022 general enrollment was: 101 in preK; 214 in kindergarten; 258 in first grade; 228 in second grade; 270 in third grade; 262 in fourth grade; 275 in fifth grade; 277 in sixth grade; 275 in seventh grade; 287 eighth grade; 256 in ninth grade; 257 in 10th grade; 253 in 11th grade and 316 in 12th grade — including community evening school enrollment.
“One of the things that strikes me is we will lose between 60 and 70 students from eighth grade to ninth grade,” Szymaniak said. “A multitude, and I’m seeing now [it’s] not just students going to South Shore Tech, they’re [also] going to Bristol Aggie and Norfolk Aggie.”
Szymaniak said one of the challenges facing him as a superintendent is that he has to sign off on those students to go, while he wants to see them pursue their educational interests, it does come out of town budgets.
The study he supplied School Committee members also broke the numbers down by the various racial groups represented by W-H students as well as programs at the different schools, but also school choice participation.
Last year WHRSD assessed the towns for the cost needed to instruct 3,442 students.
“This year … we’re down 15 students,” he said. “Once the state gives us their numbers — and that will be before we issue our assessments — they’ll give us a real number of choice students, or students that are not eligible for us to assess the towns.”
In view of “enormous dips” in enrollment in past years, Szymaniak said the numbers are promising.
“We’re retaining kids and we’re getting new students moving into the district, which is a good thing,” he said.
The new full-day kindergarten program is helping with that, even as lower birth rates are still being seen in overall enrollment figures, according to Szymaniak. That is consistent around other area districts.
There are also 177 English language learning (EL) students in the district, up from the 167 recorded by the Oct. 1 reporting deadline.
Szymaniak also plans to attend an online program on Chapter 70 funds and EL and low-income families whose children receive free and reduced lunch.
“I’m curious to see if our Chapter 70 funds will have a correlation due to our increase in EL and our increase, or our low-income students,” he said.
Byers, who represented the panel at a recent Mass. Association of School Committees conference, noted that access to the state database, and more accurate numbers, can allow districts to provide more services to EL and low-income students.
“It’s a lot of work for our central office to do, too, but it’s beneficial, because there are families who may not necessarily tell us they qualify for certain services,” she said.