School bus updates and more details on the start time change

Above: In June, school committees voted to start high school later. The change is heavily reliant on improvements to busing despite sticking with the same company from recent years. Administrators explained how they hope to achieve that.

In late June, I promised to follow up on the School Start Time change adopted by the district’s combined school committees. The decision hinged on a big change in bus transportation. That ties in to a new contract with the bus company, also approved by the committees the same night.

Below are more details on both.

NRT Bus Contract

The new contract includes enhancements requested by parents and a service level agreement

The low bidder, securing a 3 year contract, was the district’s current bus company, NRT. Apparently, that doesn’t mean you can expect more of the same frustrations as in past years.

After the start of the last two school years were marred by bus route fiascos, the district invested in avoiding another repeat. 

Martineau explained that the reworking of bus routes had previously been done by someone offered a small stipend for the work. This past year, the administration hired someone to be the transportation & registrar administrator. This spring, Jean Pinto has been diving into problematic buses, buses running late, entangled/illogical routes, etc.

They also had families register whether or not they plan to use buses for the next school year. That will allow them to consolidate routes. Later, Operations Director Keith Lavoie clarified that kids who aren’t registered are still worked into the routes, just “hidden”. That means that if families need to shift to kids taking a bus, the change can quickly be made. 

Lavoie said he and Pinto plan to ride around together this summer to check out revised routes.

Of course, Covid-19 now threatens to bring its own complications to busing whenever school reopens. Fortunately, Martineau said that NRT’s president has a direct voice on the Dept of Education’s reopening panel. The Superintendent expected details on transportation guidelines to come out in the first couple weeks of July.

The approved contract is for just under $2M for FY21 with additional fees for extra curriculars and athletics. The contract is through June 2023 with an option for extending to 2024 and 2025.

The contract incorporated input from the Transportation Parent Advisory group and the Start Time Task Force. Director of Finance Becky Pellegrino said it includes some changes parents have asked for, including cameras on the buses and a new app for parents to see their kids on the bus.

The district also included service level agreements. Superintendent Greg Martineau said it was important to have a consequence to the company if it doesn’t meet expectations.

Lavoie indicated improvements in busing efficiency this year will help pave the way for start time changes next year. The task force ensured an important clause for NRT to work with them if committee members approved their proposed new tier plan.

Start Time Strategy

No-cost solution requires no additional approvals. Presentation highlighted issues that still need to be worked through.

The Superintendent said that when they started to look into shifting Algonquin later in 2014, successful school systems warned them it was a 6-10 year process. They wrongly believed they could do it faster. On June 24th, finally voted on a change for 2021.

The biggest obstacle to the long, sought change had been the regional bus transportation schedule. In past years, officials had worried that a solution would require a high transportation cost. The idea was that more buses would be needed in order to avoid difficult challenges for families with younger students. This summer, school committees were presented a no-cost solution for the transportation problem.

Earlier this summer, the Northborough-Southborough Public Schools administration asked for public feedback on a plan for starting Algonquin Regional High School later. Based on feedback a slightly modified version was presented to the combined school committees.

Approved School Start Time schedule change for 2021-22
(click to enlarge)

The proposal was to route buses to reduce the number of trips to a given neighborhood. Southborough buses will go from making 6 trips per day to 4. Northborough buses will go from 8 trips per day to 6. (See adopted schedule right.)

Only one K-8 school in the district will experience a major time shift. Neary School will begin and end 35 minutes later.

Northborough K-8 schools were going to be reduced by 10 minutes each day. Based on strong feedback from Northborough parents, only Melican Middle School’s time will be shortened. (Administrators explained that reducing time in K-5 schools had been suggested for parity between the Towns, not based on the busing schedule. Lavoie, who experienced a similar time crunch in the past as the Trottier Middle School Principal, assured that crunching Melican’s time was doable.)

Martineau presented the findings of the 34 member Start Time Task Force with help from Lavoie. The presentation covered the importance of changing Algonquin’s start time for students’ well being. It also included statistics about community strong support for the proposal.

Start Time slide "The Why" Start time staff survey results 

Prior to the vote, administrators and members discussed potential issues that will still need to be resolved over the next year. 

One issue that concerned Northborough’s Chair Keith Lebel was the impact on ARHS student’s extra curriculars.

The ARHS Athletic Director greenlit that the plan wouldn’t be a problem for sports schedules. But currently the 1:50 pm end time gives students about an hour before most practices begin. Student use of that time includes music/arts programs, and clubs. That time will be abbreviated to about 20-30 minutes. Speaking as someone who used to participate in music and sports, Lebel was worried about the reduced opportunities.

Martineau said that students may have to make some choices. He noted that every solution comes with some tradeoffs. This was one he believed was worth the gains in student sleep.

Another issue Northborough’s Kelly Guenette asked about was the area traffic impact of Algonquin’s new 8:00 am start time.

Martineau said the biggest traffic issue they have is the queues of cars trying to enter Algonquin in the morning. He said they were exploring ideas like satellite bus stops. For instance, Southborough parents might drop off students at Trottier to take a bus to ARHS.

Bus routing details appear to be another issue than will need fine tuning. The presentation didn’t specify new route start and end times to get kids to and from more schools on each trip. (Given the locations of schools and the difference in how school populations are split, Southborough’s impacts are likely more complicated than Northborough’s.*)

Algonquin’s new starting bell will shift from 7:20 am. For the 2019-20 school year, many ARHS bus routes began as early as 6:30 am with some (mostly Northborough) starting after 6:50 am. Some routes had students dropped off at the school 20 minutes early in order to be ready to start the next bus tier on time. Presenters didn’t make promises about when students would now be dropped off in the morning. But they assured that no routes will start picking up kids before 7:00 am.

Southborough Committee Chair Keturah Martin asked about the extra time for Neary students on the bus. Her question highlighted a difference in the new schedule. Currently, schools on the same bus tier start and end at the same time. The new schedule staggers the times for Southborough schools. Neary is scheduled to end at 3:00 pm. Woodward School, on the same bus tier, will end at 3:25. Martin asked if that meant Neary students would be on the bus 25 minutes longer.

Lavoie said they are being creative on the bus routes and may have to make some tweaks. When they looked at bus times for students, he said there was a slight increase but all within reason of a few minutes. Martineau said that the current schedule causes Algonquin bus delays to compound over the tier. He hopes the reducing tiers will reduce that impact.

The survey did indicate that some parents were concerned about having Kindergarteners on the buses with 5th graders. The administration plans to be proactive in ensuring students feel comfortable. They plan to seat younger students closer to the driver and older students in the back. (That’s already a policy on the buses, just with a smaller gap in ages.)

Only two members of the public participated in the combined committees’ meeting to comment on the proposal. Both were members of the Task force, enthusiastically supporting the work and thanking members and Martineau for staying on track through the pandemic.

The committees unanimously supported the schedule change. That should be the final word. Since there is no budget impact, the decision will not go to Town Meetings for voter approval.

Again, the change should be implemented for the school year beginning in August/September of 2021.

*Why is Southborough busing more complicated than Northborough? Melican Middle School is closer to Algonquin than Trottier Middle School is. For K-5 bus tiers, Northborough schools are divided geographically. Southborough’s K-5 schools are divided by grade only, requiring buses to transport kids from the same bus stops to three schools.

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