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Waterford discusses single bus run
WATERFORD — Parents, educators, and bus drivers came together on Thursday to discuss the potential impact that a switch to a mixed-age bus run could have on the Waterford community.
The discussion, led by Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett and Business Manager Cathy Fanjoy-Coffey, indicated a mixed response from the community.
The SAD 17 school district is considering combining all ages into a single bus run, which would save the district an estimated $400,000 per year.
That money would blunt the effects of a $1.5 million budget gap, with the remainder of the gap likely to be closed by a combination of staff reductions and increased taxation.
Both of those options have consequences.
"Our reduced lunch program has seen the number of qualifying children go from 40 percent to 70 percent, so we know how tough it is for taxpayers," said Fanjoy-Coffee.
"Many of you have seen the movie Groundhog Day," said Hartnett. "You wake up, you feel like it's another day, another budget gap."
Administrators hope most of the factors that have conspired to hurt the budget, including declining state revenues, will have leveled off by next year.
"In my 19 years with the district, these two have been the most difficult years by far," said Fanjoy-Coffey.
Hartnett said that SAD 17 is generally recognized as one of the largest school districts in New England, which adds up to lots of miles for the bus fleet.
That means that SAD 17 has much larger transportation costs than most other districts. Hartnett estimates that the district's buses travel 770,000 miles every year.
"That is to the moon, back, and to the moon again, and you would have some miles left over," he said. "... That is an enormous amount of miles ... . It's a massive district."
The discussion was lively, with many parents expressing concerns about discipline issues on the bus, and about longer bus rides for younger students.
Some of those in attendance were part of single-tier systems when they were students themselves, but they had different memories of the experience.
"The language was not appropriate," reported one mother. "It was loud. It was chaotic. The bus driver had no help. That's why I say absolutely not. I was a kid on a single-tier bus."
Another mother added that she used to smoke in the back seat of the bus when she was a student.
Waterford mother Mindy Stewart, whose child attends third grade at Waterford Memorial Elementary School, says that she has only fond memories of her time on a single-tier bus.
"I was never bullied. I was never picked on. I had no problems," she reported. "For me, I remember that my time on the bus was always fun. It all depends on your bus driver."
Two bus drivers in attendance said that they did not foresee any discipline problems as a result of mixing older and younger children.
While the more vocal parents expressed concern that the older children would bully the younger children, the drivers said that most disciplinary problems actually stem from elementary school children.
One idea that was discussed was allowing juniors and seniors to perform community service requirements by acting as bus monitors.
A switch to single-tier would require all schools to start at a similar time, and would likely increase the ride times for those who live farthest from their schools.
"The longest ride right now is about an hour," said Hartnett. "The average ride is 45 minutes, and then the middle school and high school would have an additional 15 to 20 minutes on top of that."
"Now my kids are going to have to be on a bus for an hour and a half," said one father. "This isn't a burden on us as parents. This is a burden on the kids."
The schools would likely each shift their start time, said Hartnett.
"High school and middle school would start later," he said. "Elementary will start earlier."
One advantage to that model, said Hartnett, would be that parents would have the convenience of preparing their children to leave for school at the same time, and possibly recruit older siblings to help see off younger siblings.
Hartnett said that the initiative might cause the elementary school day to be longer.
One teacher suggested having a recess at the end of the day, which would give students a break between the end of their classes and the beginning of their bus ride.