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Northampton school leaders to form another committee on school start times


Northampton High School history teacher Scott Mahar, at podium, speaks at graduation in 2007 after he was presented the Mary Gray Teacher of the Year award.

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Northampton High School history teacher Scott Mahar, at podium, speaks at graduation in 2007 after he was presented the Mary Gray Teacher of the Year award. Purchase photo reprints »

— School leaders are once again preparing to send the issue of the high school start time to a committee.

At tonight’s School Committee meeting slated for 7:15 p.m. at JFK Middle School, members will discuss the charge and makeup of an ad hoc committee on school start times.

A Dec. 8 blog post by Superintendent Brian Salzer suggested that the group’s charge would be “to continue researching alternative proposals and to survey the community” on the start time issue. But in an interview earlier this week, Salzer said his understanding of the committee’s task, “was not a shared understanding” and therefore, its charge will be determined by the full board tonight.

It will be the second start time committee school leaders have formed since the debate over a later start for Northampton High School began five years ago. The previous committee recommended that the high school bell be changed from 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. or later based on research showing that teens who get more sleep are healthier and do better in school.

Later-start proponent Steve Herrell, who was a member of the first committee, said he is not opposed to school leaders forming another one — but not if its purpose is to survey the community.

“We’ve had five years of input from the community,” Herrell said. “Of course the community can continue to provide input. But with all due respect, there’s no need for more surveys and forums. It would be a waste of time and energy to do more of that.”

Instead, Herrell said, a new start time committee “should be given a time frame and develop viable options and plans to address all the ramifications” of a later high school start time, including its effect on sports and academic schedules.

That’s a mission School Vice Chair Stephanie Pick said she plans to lobby for as well. “I want this committee to do the work that we haven’t done sufficiently enough to put people’s concerns to rest by looking at all the specific issues,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Pick said because of changes voters approved in the City Charter, it’s unclear whether she or Mayor David J. Narkewicz will be making appointments to the planned committee. “My personal hope is that we’d have members of the School Committee and some people from the high school, faculty or athletic administrators, on it,” she said.

Some opponents of changing the school bell are not happy about the school board’s intention to form another committee on the issue.

Cindy Mahoney, a high school parent who has spoken against a later start time at recent public forums, said she would rather see school leaders vote on the matter.

“At this point, the issue has become divisive in the community,” Mahoney said. “It really can’t be addressed right away because of the budget situation and our teacher contracts. The School Committee should just decide it can’t happen.”

Last month, school leaders were set to vote on two proposals for changing the high school start time beginning next fall — one to 8:15 a.m. and another to 8:30 a.m. Both proposals also called for extending the elementary school day by 20 minutes.

After elementary school parents complained that posted agendas and public forums on the proposals did not include mention of changing the elementary school bell, a special meeting was called to discuss start times for the entire district.

At that meeting last week, school committee members agreed that discussions about extending the elementary school day should take place in collective bargaining sessions with school employees. So neither of the two proposals will move forward.

At last week’s meeting, School Committee member Michael Flynn expressed frustration with the amount of time the board has devoted to the start time issue.

“It feels for the last six months that I’m on the later start time committee instead of the school committee,” he said. “We have curriculum issues we’re not talking about, a huge budget issue we’re not talking about. I worry about that.”

Pick replied, “That’s all the more reason” to form a committee.

“I want to turn this conversation to the consequences of changing the start time,” she said.

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