ANDOVER — School Committee Chairman Joel Blumstein made more than 50 parents wait for 2-1/2 hours Thursday night before allowing 10 of them to speak about a proposal to change school start times, and thus bus pick-up and drop-off times, for the 6,075 students in the district.
As the discussion on start times came to an end at about 10 p.m., it was pretty clear why Blumstein, and the rest of the committee, may not have wanted to hear what the parents had to say.
In an emotional outburst, one parent, Shelley Penna, nearly leaped out of her front row seat, calling out School Committee member Shannon Scully for making “snotty, rude comments” that only create more division between the committee and the parents they are supposed to represent.
Blumstein gaveled her out of order and the parents quietly filed out of the room.
But their voices had been heard as, one after another, during the public comment part of the School Committee agenda, parents went to the microphone, imploring the committee to take more time, do more research, and consider the input of more parents before making a decision that would have a long-lasting impact on their children.
The committee earlier in the evening had been presented with a consultant’s study offering a range of options on start times, from doing nothing to completely flipping start times. The idea behind flipping the start times, according to research cited by the School Committee, is that adolescents of middle- and high school-age need more sleep to function at their highest level.
But the parents gathered Thursday night were mostly the parents of elementary school children. They said their kids need sleep, too. Furthermore, they said, earlier start times mean getting on the bus when it’s still dark, creating unsafe conditions.
Wearing orange pins that symbolized the reflective vests they’d have to wear in the dark during early morning bus pick-ups, the parents asked the committee to delay implementation of any kind of a plan for at least a year until more research could be done and more input could be obtained from residents who have young children in the schools.
Breanna Rowley of Old School House Road said she represented APAC, or Andover: Protect All Children, which has launched an organized campaign, complete with lawn signs, against the proposed time changes.
“As the process and public debate over changes to school start times in our town unfolds, one thing has become clear,” she said. “The community needs time to catch up. We appreciate and recognize that the School Committee has been working on this issue for some time. But, the narrative circulating that community members are to blame for ‘not paying attention’ is counterproductive to our making forward progress.”
Penna, of 3 Sandy Brook Circle, handed pictures of her elementary school-aged children to the members of the School Committee, asking them to “keep their faces in your brains when you vote on this.”
She noted that none of the members of the School Committee had children left in the lower grades.
“You have all had children go through the elementary schools,” she said.
Scully took umbrage to that comment, saying that she has advocated for free kindergarten and lobbied for a new elementary school.
“The notion that because my child graduated from Bancroft 16 months ago” means that she doesn’t care about elementary school children is “inappropriate,” she said.
Penna, sitting in the front row, nearly jumped out of her seat.
“This is what we are talking about,” she yelled, saying that parents have been belittled and brow-beaten by Scully and other School Committee members for holding an opposing view of changing the start times. “She makes a snotty little comment and it’s rude. It’s just rude.”
Matt Bach, president of the Andover Education Association, also known as the teachers’ union, said that union members were opposed to changing the start times.
“We can’t support anything but the status quo,” he said. “Elementary school students should not be affected by an earlier start time without proper research.”
He said some research shows that lack of sleep for younger children is also “detrimental” to their long-term development.
The parents applauded his comments.
But the biggest applause of the night came for School Committee member Paul Murphy, who said, “I can’t imagine that we’d do this for the next school year. We are hearing a lot of concerns. If this is the right thing to do, we need to do it the right way.”