By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A large number of public and private school students have been missing days worth of schooling every year, but not because they didn’t show up for classes.
School Superintendent James Scully said the district has been dismissing students 10 to 20 minutes early on a daily basis at several Haverhill schools to catch school buses home. Those numbers include local Catholic schools in which the city provides transportation. Scully could not provide an exact number, but estimated it could be as many as 7 to 9 percent of the district’s students, of which there about 7,000.
A student dismissed 10 minutes early every day would end up missing about 3 1/2 hours of class time per month over the nine-month school year. A student dismissed 20 minutes early would end up missing about seven hours of class time a month.
Scully said the practice of dismissing students early is to accommodate bus routes and is largely the result of the city’s large geographical size. He said it has been going on since he joined the Haverhill district seven years ago. Haverhill is one of the largest communities in the state with roughly 35 square miles. Lawrence, by comparison, is about seven square miles.
The district’s preliminary $90,638,215 budget for next year, unveiled by the superintendent at Thursday night’s School Committee meeting, includes $509,000 to redo bus routes and fix the problem. Overall, the spending proposal is up $4,367,852, or 5.06 percent, compared to this year.
Given the price tag, it doesn’t appear the bus route changes are going to be an easy sell, said Mayor James Fiorentini.
“The City Council and patrolmen’s union wants more police officers and the council wants money for improvements at Winnekenni and Riverside park, and just the other day I received a request from the Stadium Commission for more money for the stadium,” Fiorentini said while reviewing the school spending proposal for the first time at Thursday’s meeting.
“We also need to repair and pave several school parking lots,” the mayor said, adding in an interview the next day that the school proposal gave him “sticker shock.”
“If we could grow a money tree or there was an oil well behind City Hall, I’d love to do all these things,” the mayor said. “But that’s not the case and this is going to be a very tough budget.”
Fiorentini said the school district has been providing bus transportation for the city’s parochial schools, including Sacred Hearts and St. Joseph’s schools, for decades. He said the early dismissals are not new and that he isn’t convinced it’s the serious problem that school officials claim.
“I want to find out how many students we’re talking about and whether these are mostly parochial students or mostly public school students,” the mayor said. “And we need to know if most of them are being dismissed five minutes early and a few dismissed 20 minutes early, or vice-versa.”
Fiorentini said he is also looking into the pros and cons of the city providing busing for private schools.
“There may be some advantages in terms of state aid, but I’m not sure yet,” he said of the district providing school transportation for private school students.
The school spending proposal includes an additional estimated $2.9 million in state education aid and $1.4 million more from the city.
School officials said the city’s local aid portion is the amount the city is expected to have to pay under state law. But Fiorentini, who is also the School Committee chairman, said he isn’t so sure that number is accurate.
“I’m looking at the local aid number to see if that’s the number we have to pay,” the mayor said. “I’m not convinced it is.”
The school and local aid numbers also are preliminary until the state Legislature and governor pass next year’s state budget, likely in June.
Fiorentini noted that school salaries are up $3 million next year and that the district has benefited from millions in additional state aid in recent years.
“You got $4 million more from the state last year and you’re getting another $3 million more next year,” the mayor said.
Scully said there isn’t much discretionary spending in the budget proposal.
New discretionary spending, he said, includes $35,000 to start a girls ice hockey program, $25,000 to reduce sports user fees at the high school, $18,000 for an intercom at Tilton Elementary School, and $75,000 for building security upgrades. He said the district will not be able to fund a rowing program next school like it had hoped.
“For the past two years, the School Department has been able to maintain services and gradually expand programs as funds have allowed,” Scully said in a budget memo to the School Committee.
Notable achievements, he said, include reducing class sizes and implementing the citywide full-day kindergarten, which will continue next year, Scully said.
The superintendent said student enrollments have increased over the last three years, especially at the high school. That trend is expected to continue next school year with an estimated 160 additional students, he said. The formation and expansion of the high school’s Classical Academy for high-performing students is a major reason for increased interest in the school, Scully said.
The School Committee was expected to hold a public hearing on the school budget at its next meeting May 23, but that is now on hold until sometime in June. The mayor said he intends to release his spending plan, which includes his proposal for funding the school district, in a few weeks.