Sunday, July 21, 2024

New bell schedule adds 7 more learning days to Pender school year

The school board went with option D in its plan to choose a new staggered bell schedule to help with bus routes running more efficiently. (Courtesy photo)

PENDER COUNTY — Tuesday night the board of education took up proposed changes to its bell schedule next school year.

READ MORE: PCS removes 8 books on content, proposes change in school start time

The board voted 3-1 — with Don Hall dissenting — on a three-tier staggered schedule that would extend the start times a bit more than suggested last month and also excuse students earlier.

Overall the new schedule will have elementary schools start between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., middle schools between 7:15 a.m. and 7:20 a.m. and high schools from 8:45 a.m. to 8:52 a.m. Dismissal times will shave off 15 minutes.

For example, whereas Topsail Middle School — which rings the bell at 7:25 a.m. now — was at first proposed to start at 7 a.m., it will begin at 7:15 a.m. under the new plan. The middle school lets out currently at 2:35 p.m. but next year will release students at 2:05 p.m.

Starting and ending school earlier will add seven more learning days to the school calendar to make up for lost time.

The changes come in an effort to help bus routes move more efficiently in the county, which is experiencing a shortage of full-time drivers; instructional assistants are picking up routes to curtail issues.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction data indicated Pender County could improve its efficiency rating by 4% if it adopted a staggered schedule, according to Michael Taylor, chief of auxiliary services.

Previous PCD reporting noted the district has 12 routes where a bus driver is making double runs, particularly affecting elementary and middle schools. In effect, it leaves students waiting at schools for class to start or arriving home later at the end of the day.

The district staff brought forth only two options to the board last month. The original proposal had some schools, particularly Topsail Middle, Cape Fear Middle and Surf City Middle schools, starting as early as 7 a.m — which had the buses arrive 16 minutes earlier for those three feeder patterns.

Constituents raised concerns over getting their children to the bus stop near sunrise hours.

The board suggested the district host community meetings and listen to parent input to assess how to move forward. Feedback came from 250 emails sent to at least one board member, as well as comments gathered from town halls held at Heide Trask and Topsail High School.

Most of the participants indicated a different option that had school starting later. The district provided three more options to the board Tuesday.

Board member Beth Burns asked if they already have days earmarked to add to the year for the option which has school ending 15 minutes earlier.

Taylor confirmed they would take away two-and-a-half days from the beginning of Christmas break, wherein students would not be released a half day the Wednesday before the holiday but rather attend school through that Friday. The other four days would come from the second semester.

“We may have to move teacher workdays to the end of the school year,” he said.

Board chair Ken Smith asked why an adjustment for high school start times needed to be made if the bus route issues remain in the eastern part of the county and affect earlier primary schools.

“What would be the rationale then for moving Pender high schools, if they’re not having any kind of bus issues on the west side?” he asked. “Is it just to have a uniform grouping?”

Taylor was clear any changes made in two of the options would have a trickle-down effect, particularly for high school students that also are dually enrolled at Cape Fear Community College.

“We have to navigate this process with the college so that they can also adjust their classes and things of that nature — so we don’t have kids who are disproportionately impacted in a negative manner from being able to take those courses,” Taylor said.

Board member Phil Cordeiro was concerned with instructional assistants continuing to drive the buses. Currently, assistants make up 40% of the drivers and the district is paying overtime hours for many.

“There’s no way that we could actually do the job that we’re expected to do without those TAs driving,” Taylor said.

He clarified the goal is to add more full-time drivers that would lessen the need for assistant drivers. 

Yet, many of the assistants have requested to conduct routes still, Taylor clarified, “especially those who are moving closer to retirement and things of that nature, because obviously, their retirement is based on their income.”

“It continues to allow us to absorb the growth we have without adding the financial resources to expand our fleet,” he added.

Staggering the bell schedules for the schools allows the district to hire five more full-time drivers. It could relieve roughly 10 TA drivers. Burns indicated 36 TA positions are open in Pender County Schools.

“It was the hope that this three-tiered bell schedule was going to loosen some things up a little bit that we could start filling those positions,” she said.

According to the district’s website “‘full-time drivers’ costs will offset the overtime costs of dual employees driving.” A cost-benefit analysis indicated it could hire eight full-time drivers “before reaching the point of negative impact on our current operations budget.”

The district has hired 10 drivers since July last year and has nine potential applications in the certification process, it details on its website.

Taylor suggested doing a survey to find out how many TAs were interested in manning the bus routes still, if that was the board’s wishes.

“Is that something that can be done as soon as our next meeting?” board member Brent Springer asked, to which Taylor agreed.

Cordeiro attempted to amend a motion to pass the bell schedule to include a guarantee that more TAs will be back in the classrooms but withdrew it after the board pushed back.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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