, Newburyport, MA

January 17, 2014

Parents blast schedule changes

By Greg Phipps

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Outraged parents are blasting school officials, saying they failed to discuss changes to the public schools’ arrival and dismissal times next year, or to even let parents know a plan was in the works, after Superintendent Susan Viccaro sent a notice to parents on Monday alerting them to the new schedule.

In her letter, Viccaro wrote that school administrators, the mayor and Salter Bus Company considered numerous factors in preparing the new schedules. The new Bresnahan school is under construction and is set to open in the fall. The Nock-Molin is also being renovated.

Beginning next year, the bus arrival and departure times for Bresnahan full-day preschool students is 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Full-day kindergarten to grade 3 students will arrive at 8:45 a.m. and depart at 3:15 p.m. At the Molin Upper Elementary, the day will run from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and at the Nock, students will arrive at 7:20 a.m. and depart at 1:50 p.m. The Newburyport High school day will stay from 7:30 a.m. to 2:25 p.m.

In her notice, Viccaro said the scheduled times for Bresnahan “will allow for ease in drop-off and pick-up congestion” while changes in time at the other schools “is to allow 35 to 45 minutes (a state requirement) between bus runs to ensure timely pickup between groups of students.”

Viccaro said planning is in place for before- and after-school programs at Bresnahan to compensate for the discrepancy in next year’s schedule. But that choice isn’t sitting well with parents who are angry that the schedule was released without any input from them or forewarning, and frustrated that they now are being “forced to adjust” to the changes.

The new schedule makes it especially difficult for parents with more than one child in the school system, and for working parents who will be further burdened and inconvenienced, they say.

Among their main complaints is the time in between arrivals and dismissals at each school. At Bresnahan, there is a 15-minute window between the schedule for preschoolers and the K-3 schedule. Similarly, at Nock-Molin, the middle school and upper-elementary schedules differ by 40 minutes each way.

Earlier this week, a group of parents formed a Facebook page, “Port Parents,” to discuss the changes, and many met in person to talk prior to a PTO meeting on Wednesday night.

“I understand there are many factors taken into consideration when making scheduling decisions, but it doesn’t appear that impact on families was one of them,” parent Molly Brennan said yesterday. “There was no public discussion about this at all and it seems like this solution only creates new problems for Newburyport’s families.

“I will have kids at the Bresnahan and Molin schools next year, which means there will be a 45-minute gap between their start and end times,” Brennan said. “In order to be there for pickup and dropoff, we’d need to somehow cut nearly two hours out of our current work days, which is not really an option. There will supposedly be more after-school care options next year, but forcing us to pay for extra care because of school-mandated schedule changes seems like an indirect tax on working parents.”

Parent Derek Hartford said parents should have been involved in the discussion all along.

“We were told that this was a decision six months in the making, yet the announcement itself was a surprise to all parents, and perhaps even to school board members,” Hartford said. “There should have been public discussion before the decision was made, not after.”

The issue is expected to be discussed at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, which is set to officially start at 7 p.m. in room 118 at the high school. The regular meeting is preceded by a 6:30 public conversation session with School Committee members and the superintendent.

School officials said yesterday that a public meeting between the superintendent and the PTO is also being arranged to discuss the issue, but that a date and time for that meeting has not been determined.

A response by Mayor Donna Holaday, who chairs the School Committee, to the parents’ concerns was posted on the Facebook page as well, and cites more reasons for the scheduling decisions.

They include safety issues surrounding pickup and dropoff that would involve 900 students entering and exiting the building at the same time, and given current constraints with the building project, this problem prohibited school officials from combining the middle school and upper elementary arrival/departure times.

According to Viccaro, the school district “would not have enough time to evaluate this scenario appropriately from the end of the building project to the start of the school year” in order to combine the schedules. But it may be an option in the future.

Also cited was the sensitivity to the neighborhood that surrounds the new Bresnahan school and its concerns regarding arrival and dismissal, and the impact on traffic and the neighborhood environment.

“(The decision) seems to be almost entirely based on the bus schedule. While (the school district) claims it takes into consideration the Bresnahan neighborhood, there is nothing about the families that actually send their kids to the schools,” Hartford said.

Viccaro said the district needed to get this information out this early because kindergarten registration took place this week and, as a result, start and end times were needed. She added that the district wanted to give staff and parents time — seven months — to make arrangements for child care, car pools and other necessities.

“We know change is difficult and wanted to give time for people to absorb the changes, have time for questions and answers and to make additional adjustments once we have hard numbers regarding bus passes,” Viccaro said.