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Northampton interim School Superintendent Regina Nash rekindles later start time debate



Thursday, January 09, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Interim School Superintendent Regina Nash pledges to resolve the issue of a later start time at Northampton High School before a new schools chief is hired in July — which could mean not making the change after all.

She is proposing hiring a consultant to help the School Committee take the next step on the matter.

In June, the school board took a vote directing the superintendent to move the start time at NHS from 7:30 a.m. to between 8 and 8:30 a.m. by next fall, based on research showing teens who get more sleep do better in school and experience less stress. During the five years the change has been under consideration, one of the obstacles revolved around the school department’s busing schedule, which would have been altered with the change.

Last year at the time the School Committee voted to change the start time, busing for the high school had been eliminated in a budget-cutting move, which meant changing the school bell at NHS could be done at no added cost, Nash noted.

In June, city voters approved a property tax override to fund schools and municipal services, which allowed the School Department to restore busing services to the high school — a decision Nash said she supports. But it also means a later start at the high school will have to be considered in the context of the existing three-tiered transportation system and will mean added costs, she said.

To her, that reopens the question of whether a change should be made.

“This is a complicated matter,” Nash said, in a phone interview Wednesday. “Obviously, if there are no additional costs, we just implement it. Really, the bottom line for the School Committee is, is this what we want to do?”

Nash is proposing the school board spend up to $10,000 to hire a consultant to review a later start-time scenario for the high school that would also involve changing bus routes and start times at the city’s four elementary schools and JFK Middle School.

At Thursday’s School Committee meeting, Nash will report on the start-time issue and ask for a vote on hiring a consultant. The meeting is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. at JFK.

A plan developed by Nash and other city school administrators would essentially flip high school and middle school start times, so that JFK would begin at 7:30 a.m., NHS at 8 a.m. and the elementary schools at 9 a.m., she said. That scenario would cost an estimated $48,000 for bus schedule changes, “and it also puts our middle school students on the road at an earlier time — something we have concerns about,” Nash said.

Another option would be to create a separate bus system for the high school, which would cost in the neighborhood of $300,000, she said.

A third option proposed by School Committee member Howard Moore would have the elementary schools starting before 8 a.m., JFK somewhere around 8:15 a.m. and the high school at 8:45 a.m. The plan would combine elementary and high school bus routes in what would become a two-tiered system.

While Moore says his proposal would be more efficient than the district’s current three-tiered system, the school district has not yet produced specific bus schedules or cost estimates for his so-called “hub” plan.

Nash said a consultant is needed to nail down those details and help the School Committee decide whether Moore’s proposal is one they want to implement. The school department lacks the time or expertise to fully analyze the plan, she said. “I’m recommending that we spend up to $10,000 to see what the schedule then looks like and if Howard is right” that the hub plan will not involve additional costs, Nash said.

A consultant’s report could be produced within 30 to 60 days if the school board approves the idea — a timeline that meets Nash’s goal of resolving the start-time issue before a new schools chief is hired.

“I’m the fourth superintendent to deal with this issue and I don’t want it to be an issue for a new superintendent,” she said. “I want us to put this to bed.”

Advocates of a later start time at NHS are concerned that a resolution could mean there will be no change at all.

“It would be a travesty if the start time did not change this fall, given all the community has been through and the School Committee’s ruling,” said NHS parent Cathi Hanauer.

Hanauer noted that the issue has been under discussion for the past six years in Northampton. In addition to the school board vote in favor of a change, two separate ad hoc committees recommended moving the high school start time to 8 a.m. or later.

Hanauer stressed that a later start time at NHS is possible even without changing bus schedules. Students who take the bus — only about 100 of the high school’s 900 students — could do homework in the library or have breakfast in the cafeteria until an 8:15 a.m. bell, she said.

“What I would like to see is some assurance that the start time will change in September,” said Hanauer, who said she plans to attend Thursday’s meeting.