Board Rejects Change of High School Bell Times

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

The Fairfax County School Board late last night killed a plan to rearrange bus routes and school start times to give high school students an extra hour of sleep.

In the end, the potential restorative powers of sleep for the county's teenagers were outweighed by the stresses that new schedules would impose on families in the 169,000-student school system. The vote was 10 to 2.

Tens of thousands of students, parents and teachers opposed the plan in online surveys and town hall meetings, citing implications for work, day-care arrangements, commuting and after-school activities.

"The cure appears to be worse than the problem to be solved," board member James L. Raney (At Large) told a small crowd of tired proponents of later high school start times late last night. "It's not the right answer."

But new schedules may still be coming for thousands of families. To save money in a tight budget year, transportation officials are developing another plan that would keep high school schedules intact but shift bell times and bus routes for many elementary and middle schools.

"We have learned a lot through this process by looking at how we do business," chief operating officer Dean Tistadt said. Those lessons could help save several million dollars by offering fewer bus stops and rearranging bell schedules, he said.

The scope of changes that Tistadt expects to propose to the board next month is unclear. The first bell for elementary schools would not be moved more than 30 minutes, and middle school start times would potentially change by as much as 40 minutes, he said.

Tistadt said the changes would be modest compared with the proposal the board rejected last night. Still, any modifications are bound to draw scrutiny from families balancing hectic schedules.

Given the sensitivity, "we have been reluctant or unwilling to take this on until now," Tistadt said. "But we have a compelling budget problem."

He said he expects to unveil his proposal to the board next month but said "it's far from certain" that it will be approved, given the recent outpouring of concern about schedule changes. School officials are searching for savings to close a budget shortfall that exceeds $150 million.

Last night's meeting came after five years of effort by a parent-led group known as SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal). The group's main goal has been to improve the health, safety and academic performance of sleep-deprived teenagers by pushing back high school start times -- a goal they said they will continue to push for.

Along the way, consultants and a community task force scrutinized the school bus operation and found weaknesses in a system that has been stretched and modified countless times while serving one of the largest school systems in the country.

School Board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) last night proposed another plan to continue improving bus service and to address such problems. He sought to set limits on ride times and caps on how early or late students would be picked up or dropped off and, over time, to address "age appropriate" start times.

The proposal failed on 6 to 6 vote. Several board members said they opposed expending more energy on the unpopular issue of later start times when the budget is demanding their attention.

"We need to set it aside," board member Jane K. Strauss said.

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