Columbia School Board votes in favor of three-tier transportation plan

Monday, March 11, 2013 | 10:35 p.m. CDT; updated 5:21 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 13, 2013

COLUMBIA — High school students in Columbia Public Schools will have more control over their class and activity schedules than ever before starting in August. 

The Columbia School Board approved a new transportation plan Monday. The plan features a 9 a.m. to 4:05 p.m. school day for high schools. The change will alter where and how students learn because they will have the ability to take online and "zero hour" classes outside school hours, Superintendent Chris Belcher said.

"The high school experience is about to radically change," he said.

In a presentation to the board prior to the transportation vote, Rock Bridge High School Principal Mark Maus, Hickman High School Principal Tracey Conrad and Battle High School Principal Kim Presko illustrated how five hypothetical students could structure their days. 

For example, student "Wanda" would be able to take a "zero hour" course, one that starts before the normal school day. Then, she would be able to leave at 12:30 p.m. to attend a class at MU. 

The point was to demonstrate how students in different activities, with jobs and with or without cars, could structure their class time under the late-start flexible scheduling, Maus said. 

At a Feb. 11 board meeting, Belcher addressed the concern that students without their own vehicles will have comparatively less control over their schedules than students with them. He said the district was working with city transportation to plan stops at high schools to maximize student options. 

Conrad said that plan will become a reality starting in April, when the district begins a pilot with city buses making rounds t0 the high schools in 30-minute increments. 

"I'm really excited about the partnership and working with Columbia Transit because that really expands the opportunities for our students to participate in activities," Conrad said. 

Before the high school bells chime at 9 a.m., middle and elementary school students will already be in class, according to the new transportation plan.

The first tier will have two start times: 7:30 a.m. for middle schools and 7:40 a.m. for elementary schools (Lee, Midway Heights, New Haven, Ridgeway, Benton, Rock Bridge and Two Mile Prairie). Dismissal will be 2:35 p.m. for the middle schools and 2:40 p.m. for the elementary schools.

The second tier, for all other elementary schools, will start at 8:20 a.m. and dismiss at 3:20 p.m.

Angela Speck, the parent of a Lee Elementary School student, said she is concerned about the safety of children waiting at bus stops before dawn.

"I was up at 7 a.m. this morning," she said. "It was pitch dark outside. My six-year-old should not be waiting for a bus in the pitch dark."

Christine King, board member, Transportation Committee chair and the only member to vote in opposition to the plan, said she was still making up her mind in the moments before the group decision, after listening to the public comments. 

She said she spent a lot of time considering the potential ramifications of the board's decision on transportation.

"I have really, personally struggled with it," she said. "Of all the decisions we've made, this has probably hit me the hardest."

In addition to the transportation decision, Belcher addressed potential changes in federal sequestration of funds.

“Our federal funding level is at 7 percent,” Belcher said. “We could potentially see a $500,000 reduction in funding with limited time for response.”

The state and federal governments have not offered guidance about how the district could be affected by the sequestration, or the withholding of funding to federal agencies, said Chief Financial Officer Linda Quinley.

Without interference by lawmakers, cuts to federal funding for schools will take place at the start of the 2013-14 academic year.

Belcher said this would give the district little time to prepare and it is not currently possible to give an accurate estimate of how funding will change.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Belcher said. “It has put us in a situation that is hard to plan for and be good stewards of the money we are going to get.” 

No changes will be made to the budget until the federal budget process is complete , Quinley said.

“We will need to be ready to respond on July 1,” she said. “It will be a last minute decision.”

Also at the meeting, the board unanimously voted to:

  • Rename Jefferson, Oakland and West Junior High Schools to Jefferson, Oakland and West Middle Schools for the 2013-14 school year.
  • Approve the calendar for the 2014-15 school year.
  • Approve calendar amendments for the 2013-14 school year. This will give kindergarten teachers two extra days for student assessment in preparation for the school year. Kindergarteners will begin school Aug. 22, with assessments Aug. 20 and 21.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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