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Deer Isle, Isle au Haut and Stonington, Maine.
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by Jessica Brophy
On Tuesday, February 5, the school board continued a discussion of school safety that started with a public forum in January.
While there was some discussion of potential changes to the entryway to the elementary school, as well as several other smaller changes that had been made at the schools, the topics discussed at length were problems with the current busing system and background checks.
With the 2011 arrest of a school employee on alleged possession of child pornography charges, and the 2012 arrest of a school bus driver on alleged sexual assault of a minor charges, the board discussed what could be done to help screen new employees. Superintendent Mark Jenkins explained that the fingerprint and background check required by state law may not return all run-ins with the law a potential employee has had, only those relevant to school service. A Maine Department of Health and Human Services background check would return any and all “findings” and is the standard background check for Head Start employees.
Jenkins said any new hires would have both types of background checks conducted, as well as a possible background check through an online service. The board agreed adding another level to the background checks was a good idea.
The other topic related to safety involved questions about the bus system. Currently, the school system is in the fourth year of a five-year contract with First Student. Board members Skip Greenlaw and chairman Mark Cormier discussed how they have heard from parents and students about problems with the bus system.
“Many parents drive their kids to school because they don’t want them riding the bus,” said Cormier. Part of the problem is that discipline on buses is handled according to First Student rules, instead of by the school. Problems that happen on the bus often are not communicated to the schools.
Jenkins said he took a cursory look at what it would mean for the district to own and run its own buses again. “I was surprised at how in the long run it might be less expensive,” said Jenkins. Of course, said Jenkins, there would be a large initial investment cost.
The board recommended that Jenkins discuss changes to the existing bus contract or operating procedures with First Student, particularly to see if bus drivers could be trained about school rules for discipline, to improve communication with the office and also to improve background checks. Board member Vicki Zelnick said the business might be willing to listen if it knew the board was considering discontinuing the contract. The board also asked Jenkins to keep looking into what it would cost to have the system run its own buses.
In other business, High School Principal Todd West reported that there were fewer mid-year course failures than in the past two years. Of the 17 failing grades, 13 will be qualified for “credit recovery,” a process where students can pass the class through makeup work if they failed with a grade of 60 or higher.
Jenkins also outlined the upcoming process for determining the 2013-14 budget. Jenkins will bring a “bulleted outline” to the March meeting and make a presentation to the board. Most of the budget decisions will be made during monthly board meetings, with other meetings to be scheduled if desired by the public or the board.
The March school board meeting will be held on Wednesday, March 6, at 5:30 p.m. at the high school cafeteria.