Dozens of concerned parents met in Columbia Tuesday night to express frustrations with Howard County Public School System officials and their handling of new school start times, canceled bus routes, consistently late buses and other issues, three weeks into the new school year.
Parents at the town hall, hosted by Neighbors for Buses, said their voices are not being heard by school officials, but at least two school board members attended Tuesday’s event.
Howard Board of Education members Jennifer Mallo and Linfeng Chen attended the town hall in person. Cheng did not speak, but Mallo said the meeting reflected an urgent need for transportation solutions. She took numerous pages of notes during the event for further consideration.
“We want solutions, and we want our kids in school,” Mallo said. “The only way they learn is if they’re in school, and that is our No. 1 responsibility. There are other things that are going to come up that we can address along the way — No. 1 is to get our kids safely to school.”
The county’s public schools started Wednesday with new bell times, which Superintendent Michael Martirano announced Sept. 13.
All Howard high schools, six middle schools as well as Cedar Lane School and the Homewood Center fall under Tier 1, which began the school year starting at 8 a.m. As of Wednesday, those schools start at 7:50 a.m. and dismiss 10 minutes earlier.
The 14 middle schools that fall under Tier 2 also start 10 minutes earlier, now beginning at 8:30 a.m. The 14 elementary schools in that group now start at 8:45 a.m., five minutes later than before. Tier 3, which includes 28 elementary schools, starts 10 minutes later, at 9:25 a.m.
The changes followed a tumultuous first week of school when buses were delayed and new transportation contractor, Zum Services, canceled 54 bus routes. Bus delays and cancellations have continued, according to parents and school officials.
The meeting was held at the Howard County Public Library Central Branch in Columbia, limited to 80 attendees, and also broadcast on Zoom, which capped attendance at 100. The group exceeded 100 requests for online spots, organizer Corrine Happel, of Ellicott City, said. Happel has three elementary-age children in Howard’s public schools.
Happel asked speakers on Tuesday to suggest at least one solution as part of their remarks.
“If it’s a good solution, it doesn’t matter who it comes from,” Mallo said.
Dan Newberger, father of an eighth grader at Hammond Middle and fifth grader at Swansfield Elementary schools, said HCPSS should employ bus drivers directly instead of working with contractors. Doing so could provide drivers with benefits to entice them, streamlined training protocols and union membership if they want it.
“You could have the teacher of the year in a classroom, but if your kids can’t get there on time it doesn’t matter,” Newberger said. “Bus drivers are the first people our kids see in the day and the last people they see coming home — they’re educators — the sooner we think about them that way the better we all will be. We can’t keep thinking about this as something we do logistically, it’s more than that. It’s core to our school success.”
The county does not have a bus driver shortage, he said, but rather a shortage in compensation for those willing to perform a difficult job.
“I go crazy with one middle school kid in my minivan,” Newberger said, “I can’t imagine 45.”
The HCPSS central office made several mistakes that led to the transportation crisis, Newberger said, including contracting with Zum Services and telling the school board that high school start times could be moved later without allocating funds to implement the change. He said the solution is to hold central office officials accountable.
“We are under a lot of delusions in our county about how great our schools are,” Newberger said. “We have amazing kids; we have amazing teachers, and we have a third-rate central office. And you see it in all sorts of ways when you start digging, it’s not just the buses.”
Many attendees said they felt their voices and opinions were not being heard by the school system. Happel encouraged those who attended the town hall on Tuesday to speak out during the public forum portion of county school board meetings.
Ten speakers are allotted 10 minutes to address the school board, five at 4 p.m. and five at 7 p.m.; however, at the Aug. 31 school board meeting, speakers were only permitted to address transportation challenges during the 4 p.m. public forum session.
Rachel Ortiz, parent of a kindergartner and preschool student in Howard schools, said this did not work for many residents, as they were busy with jobs and parenting obligations at 4 p.m.
Ortiz spoke against Martirano’s decision to change school start times three weeks into the school year. She said starting high school 10 minutes earlier may not seem like a lot of time, but it will complicate an already tedious juggling act for many parents and undermine the importance of scheduling.
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“The education system always stresses schedules, always stresses how we can help our kids,” Ortiz said. “The No. 1 thing of how we start our day is school buses, and the education system is failing by not recognizing that schedules are falling apart.”
Drew Roth, of Elkridge, said he would like to see schools built closer to the communities they are intended to serve, adding that many Guilford Park High students have experienced transportation delays because of the distance they live from their school. High schoolers in his neighborhood are zoned for Guilford Park, even though it is not the closest high school geographically. The commute down the congested Route 1 corridor does not help, he added.
“This is what happens when you don’t build schools where the students live,” Roth said, “and when you make ridiculous redistricting.”