Schools’ staggered start times unlikely to be reconsidered

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

School officials say staggered start times have saved the system money, but some parents contend that having students at bus stops as early as 6:30 a.m. is not beneficial to their health or education.

Superintendent Dr. Curtis Jones said he recognizes the challenges associated with the current schedule, but that it was a necessary step in light of budget woes.

One of the issues with the previous two-tier system was the autonomy each school was granted. Jones said individual school administrators had the ability to set start times, which presented challenges to the Transportation Department.

“One of the problems we had before was that schools started close to the same time, but not exactly the same. It made it difficult to manage,” Jones said. “While we do believe in giving schools autonomy so they can manage, it does create some challenges. We were able to let pretty much every elementary school and middle school have the same start time, and high schools would start their day earlier.”

This resulted in some bus drivers scrambling to finish high school routes before moving on to those for elementary and middle schools.

“Buses were being pulled by individual school schedule preferences,” he said.

When officials began evaluating various possible budget-reducing measures, the decision was made to change from the two-tier system to the current three-tier system.

“We were able to reduce the number of buses we had, so then we were also able to reduce the number of bus drivers we needed. It also allowed us to eliminate when we needed to go buy buses because we were able to take some of the buses we already had and use them as spares,” Jones said. “The budget crunch is what led to the three-tier system.”

Although some parents may complain about the earlier start time for schools – particularly parents of elementary-aged children – Jones said the three-tier system positively addressed another concern expressed by parents.

Under the previous two-tier system, it was not uncommon for a wider age range to ride the same bus.

That was referred to as “combo buses,” Jones said.

“It was a combination of elementary and middle school students or middle and high school students, so those were combo buses,” he explained.

Under the current system, that no longer occurs. Rather, students now only ride buses with the school level peers.

Jones said he does understand that the staggered school start times present challenges to some families.

“The question some parents ask is how early do we have to get up to get our kids to school. There are some that are getting up as early as 5:30 a.m. They may be putting kids on buses as early as 6:15 a.m., depending on how long their ride is,” he said. “But another issue that’s important is how long students stay on the buses. I’ll tell you my goal is no more than 45 minutes on buses, but some do ride as long as an hour, and that’s a long commute time.”

While acknowledging it presents this challenge, Jones said it is unlikely the three-tier system will be changed.

“I tend to think this cost reduction measure, like others, is one that won’t be reconsidered,” he said.

Jones said for the 2013-2014 school year, the school system’s fund balance is being used to maintain students’ 180-day term and to prevent staff furlough days. Projections are that this will be possible for potentially two more years. However, beyond that point in time, it is uncertain.

“If the funding situation from the state doesn’t improve so that sometime over the next three years we’ll be able to see that our fund balance is going to be able to remain stable, I don’t see us removing cost reduction measures we implemented two years ago. It wasn’t something that was done in a month. It was over a long period of time,” he said, adding that much research was conducted with regard to how other school systems not only in Georgia, but nationwide dealt with the issue. “I will admit it’s an inconvenience. In a perfect world, I would prefer to see all schools start and end at about the same time, depending on what state law requires, but unfortunately, this is one of those things we just have to deal with now.”  Ω

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