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Later NHS start time scrapped for this year

Revisiting a decision made last year to move the school bell at NHS from 7:30 a.m. to between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m by September, the School Committee voted Thursday to request more study of busing needed for that change, with a final report due in February 2015.

The vote was 8-0, with one board member, Blue DuVal, abstaining. School Committee Ann Hennessey was absent.

Supporters of a later start time at NHS — some of whom have been working on the issue for more than five years — were disappointed by the board’s decision.

“They have basically kicked the can down the road till at least next February,” said business owner Steve Herrell, who served on a 2008 committee that recommended a later school bell based on research showing teens who get more sleep do better in school. (A second start-time committee in 2013 did the same).

“When a legislative body has trouble making a decision, they often keep asking for more and more data,” Herrell said Friday. “The school board wants more ridership data, but that’s data they already have. Our group is up in arms about this.”

Committee member Downey Meyer, who proposed the motion for further study, noted that the vote last June in favor of a later school bell was taken at a time when busing to the high school was slated to be discontinued, which meant there would be no need to add buses or change start times at any other city schools to accommodate a later start at NHS.

A property tax override voters passed last summer meant busing to the high school was not cut, so any change in the high school start would have to be factored into the existing three-tiered bus system.

A consultant’s report the school board commissioned earlier this year found transportation costs associated with an 8 a.m. start at NHS could range from $684,0000 to $828,000 annually. The study also showed start times would need to be changed at the city’s four elementary schools and JFK Middle School to allow an earlier start at NHS.

At Thursday’s board meeting, Meyer emphasized that the School Committee has not provided additional funding to implement a later high school bell.

“The situation now is that we have directed the superintendent to do something, but we have just voted a budget that has no resources for that,” he said.

More data on transportation costs would help school leaders identify how much a start-time change would cost, Meyer said.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to have to spend more money if we want to provide this change,” he added. “If we’re not willing to step up and allocate resources, we can take all the votes we want, but nothing will happen.”

Interim Superintendent Regina Nash said Friday that the recent $6,737 consultant’s study was based on counts of the number of Northampton students who have bus passes. The data the school board is requesting is a count of actual ridership on city school buses, she said.

“Board members believe there are a significant number of kids with passes who don’t ride the bus,” Nash said. That would mean fewer buses would be needed to accommodate the change.

To be accurate, ridership counts need to include peak cold weather months, which is one reason the board set a February deadline for a final report, Nash said. Another reason is that February is the start of budget season, when decisions about allocating funds for a later start would need to be made.

At Thursday’s School Committee meeting, some board members expressed disappointment about delaying action on a later high school start time — even as they conceded they lack a plan for making a change in September.

“By dragging this on and on, we’re saying to our students, ‘your wellness is not important,’” said board member Pam Hannah. “We need a firm deadline” on an implementation plan.

Committee member Howard Moore said a later school bell at NHS should remain a priority because it would benefit struggling students the most.

“So it’s not a distraction from our main mission,” he said. “It’s a big deal and we need to take it seriously.”

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