School decision will hurt Suffolk parents

Published 10:03 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Any public budget — just as any household or business budget — represents a complex set of compromises — a list of needs that must be met and desires for what could be funded, balanced by the reality of expected revenues. No realistic budget can fund everything an organization might hope for, and there are always some things that must be trimmed in order to keep all the ink on the final document black.

So it was with the Suffolk Public Schools budget this year. Even after being fully funded by the City Council, it was clear that there would be some things that would not make the cut, especially in light of teachers’ demands for better working conditions, not least as it relates to time spent in activities outside of the classroom.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising, then, that the school system has announced plans to phase out an early drop-off program that allowed parents of elementary-age children to leave their kids at school 20 to 35 minutes before the regular drop-off time.

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The system plans to limit enrollment this school year to families who already participate. It will eliminate the program entirely next school year.

The program was initiated during the 2013-2014 school year, when elementary schools were in their second round of adjustments to later start times. School starts as late as 9:35 a.m. at some of the city’s elementary schools, and there was a recognition at the time that many parents would have problems at work if they regularly needed to arrive that late in the morning.

Teachers and teaching assistants were called to provide oversight of the children during the early hour, which meant less time for teacher planning and less classroom time available for their assistants. The school system hopes to address teachers’ concerns by giving this time back to them.

That’s a worthy goal, but the system is doing a disservice to parents in the process of trying to achieve it.

It would have been one thing if this change had been announced as a likely outcome during budget discussions this spring. That would have given parents, teachers and the City Council a clear view of what plans were in the offing, and it would have resulted in better-informed discussions about the potential for an important service to be taken away from families with children in the system.

By waiting until after the budget was approved, however — and by waiting until the just a few weeks before school starts again — the system has put parents new to the system into a crisis situation and one that is likely to cause some to have trouble with their employers.

Even worse, the change will likely cause the most problems for those who are least likely to be able to address it. The highest percentage of early drop-off participation occurs at Booker T. Washington and Creekside elementary schools. Both schools serve largely working-class neighborhoods, where blue-collar families are less likely to be able to adjust their schedules to deliver their children to school later in the morning. And both are Title I schools, which suggests their families will be less able to afford the cost of daycare through the YMCA or Suffolk Parks and Recreation.

It seems hard to imagine that there wasn’t some other school program that could have been cut back to allow the system to afford to pay chaperones to watch the children at the schools most in need of the early drop-off program. Perhaps if folks had known this eventual outcome, they might have suggested some change that could have accommodated the program.

Unfortunately, the school system continues to operate in a manner that causes many here in Suffolk to scratch their heads and wonder how and why decisions are made and whether its leaders really understand those whom they serve.