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Boards launch staggered bells pilot project for Pembroke, Petawawa and Deep River schools

STEPHEN UHLER, ANTHONY DIXON

The Renfrew County District School Board and the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board have decided to give staggered bells a try, but only in the Pembroke, Petawawa and Deep River areas.

On Monday night, both boards endorsed a recommendation from its Renfrew County Joint Transportation Consortium, which runs the school bus system through sharing routes, to launch a pilot project affecting those three families of schools.

The year-long experiment, starting this fall and lasting to June 2010, would see the secondary schools and some elementary schools start as early as 8 a. m., while the majority of the elementary schools start as late as 9:30 a. m., both times subject to adjustment by the consortium to try and minimize the disruption to students and their families.

This trial run will be evaluated in February 2010 to see how it is working.

The schools affected will be Beachburg Public School, Champlain Discover Public School, Fellowes High School, General Lake Public School, General Panet High School, Herman Street Public School, Highview Public School, Keys Public School, Mackenzie High School, Morison Public School, Pine View Public School, Pinecrest Public School, Rockwood Public School and Westmeath Public School under the public school board, and Bishop Smith Catholic High School, St. Francis of Assisi, Cathedral, Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Mary's Deep River, St. Anthony's Chalk River, Holy Name, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Grace Westmeath under the Catholic board.

Voting for the proposal for the public board were Trustees Marjorie Doering, Terry Harkins, Norm Hazelwood, Dave Shields, David Kaiser and board chairman Roy Reiche. Voting against were Trustees Barbara Basso and Therese Hein.

During the debate, trustees from both boards said this has been one of the more difficult decisions they have had to wrestle with in some time, and it wasn't taken lightly.

Public board Trustee David Kaiser said it was a tough choice, being forced by the province to weigh these options between balancing the books and disrupting students and their familys' lives.

"Personally, I found this issue to be more emotional than the closing of schools," he said.

Dave Shields, his fellow trustee, said this is one of those times when the public board had little choice but to proceed with a staggered-bell system.

He said with their transportation system already more than $500,000 in the red, which is expected to grow to a $1-million shortfall over the next three years due to expected provincial cutbacks, the board either finds savings in its buses, or it has to start cutting programs, something he will not support.

"We are in real trouble here," he said, and have to proceed with this project.

Under a staggered-bell model, instead of 9 a. m., the opening bells would ring anytime between 8 a. m. and 9:30 a. m., and the school day would end between 2 p. m. and 3:30 p. m. This is done to co-ordinate the arrivals of school buses so fewer buses would be needed to do more runs.

Board members said they listened to concerns brought before the public meetings about this staggered-bell system, which included forcing increases in child-care costs in homes where both parents work, interfering with children being able to take part in after school sports programs, put a strain on families as young children would be left exhausted with having to get up so early to catch the bus and potentially endangering students forced to wait around longer for buses to arrive.

Trustees say they sympathize, but most state they have little choice in the matter.

What is sparking this is the Ministry of Education has embarked on a review of operations at all 72 school boards, and is strongly pushing all boards to adopt a staggered-bell system. It is also tying funding to how efficient it feels each board is operating.

Lisa Kuehl, the public school board's business superintendent, said the ministry has been clawing back funding based on efficiency ratings and enrolment numbers, meaning this board alone is looking at a $170,000 cut each year to its transportation funding.

She said the only way the board will be able to balance its books is to get as high an efficiency rating as possible from the ministry -and so secure funding to cover most of its shortfalls - which means some form of a staggeredbell system has to be put in place.

"Without that, we'll have to cut programs to balance things," Ms. Kuehl said.

Voting in favour of the motion on the Catholic board were trustees Marlene Borutski, Judy Ellis, Dave Howard, Bob Michaud, and Bob Schreader. Voting against the motion were trustee Anne Smith and board chairman Andy Bray.

Mr. Bray said he was not happy with the way the Ministry of Education was using financial pressure to push the board into quickly implementing the system.

"I believe we could tighten up a bit more and find some savings if we had more time," he stated adding that now was not the time to go to a staggeredbell system.

"This was a tough decision," said Trustee Dave Howard, a member of the transportation consortium. "We went to all the different communities and have listened to what parents had to say but based on what we have and what the ministry is requiring, we had to do something. Through this pilot project we will get to see how this system will work."

Consortium member Bob Schreader said in his 19 years as a trustee, he has never received so many calls, e-mails and letters on an issue as he has over staggered bells. He said he had to support the motion to be fiscally responsible.

"We have a $500,000 deficit in the transportation envelope between the two boards and our models have shown us that implementing staggered bells across the county could save us $900,000," he explained.

Mr. Schreader said parents have constantly asked him if he is sure this system will save money.

"Running this pilot project in the most populated areas, where staggered bells seems to work best, is a good concept. We can have a look at it and have some hard data and facts," he said. "The pilot project may answer a lot of questions."

Trustee Anne Smith thanked the consortium for all its hard work but said she couldn't vote in favour of the motion.

While she supported in principal the pilot project idea, she said the message she heard from parents was that they were not in favour of implementing the system.

Bob Michaud, trustee and consortium member, said while he voted in favour of the motion, he was keeping an open mind about staggered bells and would be reviewing the pilot project very carefully.

"Some families will be disrupted by this, others not as much, and others may benefit. It depends on their individual circumstances," he said. "In February, we'll take a hard look at it and if the savings are not there, I'll be reversing my thoughts."

Trustee Marlene Borutski said that while she did not support staggered bells, she would support the pilot project motion to see how the system would actually work.

Trustee Judy Ellis said the process was not an easy one and she thanked the consortium for its hard work and the parents who came out and showed their interest by participating in the public meetings.

Stephen Uhler and Anthony Dixon are Daily Observer reporters.



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