Bell Tolls for Fairfax School Efforts

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2008

After nearly five years of exhaustive research and parent activism, an effort in Fairfax County to rearrange the daily routes of more than 1,100 school buses and shift high school start times later is in jeopardy because of the school system's projected $220 million budget deficit.

Many School Board members and thousands of parents agree that delaying the 7:20 a.m. bell that starts the day for most high school students would give the teenagers extra sleep that would help their academic performance and well-being.

But board members are reluctant to sign on to an initiative that could cost several million dollars. Any added expense "is going to be a tough sell," said board member and budget chairman Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence).

On Monday, the board will review an update from Superintendent Jack D. Dale on the effect of the projected revenue shortage on class size and staffing levels in the next fiscal year. Cost of living increases for teachers are in question. So are some arts initiatives, after-school programs and other services.

Board members are asking Dale to find a way to change the start schedule and bus routes for the lowest cost. Parent advocates say it's possible, but school transportation planners are skeptical.

What's involved is nothing short of rerouting one of the nation's largest bus fleets, which provides transportation for 127,000 eligible riders to nearly 200 schools each day at a projected cost of more than $120 million for the next fiscal year.

The School Board began looking in earnest at a bus schedule change in 2004. That's when two mothers worried about their sleep-starved teenagers organized the group SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal), which grew quickly, drawing support from the County Council of PTAs and amassing 8,400 signatures on a petition urging the board to approve the change.

Other school systems have also taken up the charge for later bell times, partly inspired by research showing that teen body clocks are different. Doctors say they need about nine hours of sleep. Although teens perform better later in the morning, younger children are often more alert in the early hours.

In Arlington County, the School Board voted in 2000 to move high school start times from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. Other cities, including Minneapolis and Denver, have made schedules more flexible.

Most high schools in Fairfax now start at 7:20 a.m.; most middle schools start between 7:20 and 8:05 a.m.; and most elementary schools start between 8 and 9:15 a.m.

A board-appointed community transportation task force recommended in March that bells for high school students be moved from 7:20 a.m. to between 8:35 and 8:55 a.m. Elementary schools would begin between from 7:50 to 9:20 a.m., and middle schools would start from 9:20 to 9:40 a.m.

Parent advocates say they hope the board will see the health and academic benefits as a priority. Their recommendations also could save money by making the system more efficient, they say. "We feel strongly that the bell schedule change can be a win-win," said Sandy Evans, co-founder of SLEEP.

Board members said there is room for improvement in a busing system that has evolved over 20 years to accommodate huge growth and increasingly specialized programs for children with disabilities, or enrichment or career training.

Consultants have documented struggles with overly long ride times, excessively early drop-offs, and buses with very heavy or very light passenger loads. A 2006 report said the bus system is being "pushed to the breaking point" and needs to be restructured.

Niedzielski-Eichner said the long review of the issue has given school officials insights that will probably lead to the modernization of the system, although "it may not be [in the] near term."

In some ways, the review has saved money. Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for the school system, said $3 million can be saved by centralizing the staff that designs bus routes and tweaking start times at some schools to increase efficiency.

His office is looking for ways to make a new bell schedule more affordable, by consolidating bus stops or other route changes. But he said he is not likely to advocate a widespread change when the school board is expected to vote on the matter next spring.

"At a time when you are increasing class size, and reducing service delivery all over the system, is it really a time you want to spend several million to flip the bell [schedule]? I would argue no," Tistadt said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company