Little was resolved Wednesday night when neighbors of Symonds School brought their concerns over a new bus route plan before the Keene City Council’s municipal services, facilities and infrastructure committee.
The worries stem from a notice issued Sept. 26 by Principal Richard Cate to people who live near the school, saying a new fenced-in bus circle — a designated area for buses to go for student drop-off and pick-up where drivers can turn around easily — would be built behind the school on the playground.
The goal of the new bus circle— totaling $55,700 and paid for through cost savings in another project — was to prevent traffic jams and improve safety for students, according to Cate. But people who live near Symonds have argued the resulting route change would bring a new set of dangers.
After residents reached out to them for help, Councilors Robert J. O’Connor and Randy L. Filiault co-signed a letter to the council and Mayor Kendall W. Lane, urging city officials to study the plan.
But at Wednesday’s committee meeting — which drew about 30 people — City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said this is an issue for the planning board rather than the council.
And after reviewing the matter per Filiault and O’Connor’s request, Dragon explained that the only thing the school needs from the city to move forward is a city driveway permit.
That permit would allow the school to change Wheelock Street from a dead-end road to a bus route, according to Keene Public Works Director Kurt D. Blomquist.
Today, buses pick up and drop off Symonds students at the main entrance in front of the school building, which is also where the 250-car parking lot is, as well as the entrance to Wheelock Park. With more students being dropped off or picked up by parents, Cate said the “situation has gotten worse.”
To get to the new circle, though, the school’s five buses would need to be routed through Wheelock Street, Newman Street and Pine Avenue in the mornings and afternoons — a change many neighborhood residents are not on board with.
Twenty-nine people signed a letter Oct. 7, addressed to Cate, Lane and N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert H. Malay.
The letter lists nine concerns, most of them related to safety. The residents say students who walk to and from school would be at risk of getting hit, the streets are too narrow for buses to pass through, driveways would be blocked, and the new route would drive down property values.
Symonds has between five and 35 student walkers every day, according to data from the school.
School officials held a public meeting for parents and affected residents to discuss their concerns on Oct. 23, which ended with Malay putting a pin in using the circle until everyone was in agreement.
But in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Malay said he’s doubtful this will happen.
“I don’t think we will ever get to a place where we hit 100 percent, where everyone agrees,” he said. “I don’t think that’s realistic.”
And as Malay mentioned at the October meeting, the circle is already almost finished.
Council weighs in
With the same arguments made as at the last meeting, attendees said they felt their safety concerns still weren’t being addressed.
“Do you know how wide Wheelock Street is? 20 [feet]?” asked Wanda Schumann, a 40-year resident of the street. “Can you imagine those great big buses coming down? Whether it’s four, five, six or 10, this is an issue. I’m no rocket scientist, but I sure as heck know that don’t make sense.”
Filiault, who sits on the municipal services committee, and O’Connor and City Councilor Philip M. Jones — who both spoke at Wednesday’s meeting — said they think the plan should be reconsidered.
“I think it’s clear the entire neighborhood doesn’t like this plan,” Filiault said. “We’re taking a problem and creating a bigger problem ... I think common-sense-wise, I can’t imagine why anybody would be pushing forward this plan when nobody wants it.”
He added that though the council can’t do much directly to help those concerned, councilors can lend an ear, and he offered to speak with planning board members about the permit if residents wish.
The next planning board meeting is scheduled for Nov. 25 at 6:30 p.m. Symonds School will host another meeting Nov. 21 at 6:30 p.m., which will be open to the entire school community.
From there, Malay said school officials will hopefully have “broader input” to inform their decision.
“We have to put our heads together and come up with a solution that we can all agree with,” Malay said Wednesday afternoon. “It might not be how everyone or anyone wanted it, but something we can live with.”