NO DOUBT some Montgomery County high school students will appreciate the extra 20 minutes of sleep they will get next school year under a newly approved plan for bell times. But this token gesture comes nowhere near to solving the health and safety problems associated with teenagers not getting enough sleep. The failure of school officials to take bold action is a missed opportunity and another sign of the system’s troubled leadership.
A divided school board, acting upon the recommendation of a superintendent it is forcing from office, approved last week modest shifts in school start times. High schools, which now start at 7:25 a.m., will start at 7:45 a.m. for the 2015-2016 school year. Middle schools also will start 20 minutes later, while elementary schools will start 10 minutes later with a lengthened school day. The change is a step in the right direction and comes at no cost, but it falls woefully short of recommendations set out by the American Academy of Pediatrics for school start times for adolescents of 8:30 a.m. or later.
Far superior was a proposal advanced by board member Philip Kauffman (At Large) and supported by President Patricia O’Neill (District 3) and member Jill Ortman-Fouse (At Large) that would have allowed high schools to start at 8:50 a.m. by starting elementary schools first. It would have cost an estimated $3.9 million, clearly doable given the system’s $2 billion-plus budget and the longer planning period for implementation in 2016-2017. Unfortunately, that plan and other reasonable alternatives never had a chance with three board members — Judith Docca (District 1), Michael A. Durso (District 5) and Christopher S. Barclay (District 4) — who opposed any change in the status quo. Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) and student member Dahlia Huh were tepid on the issue. The board discussion was so ill-informed as to be disheartening.
Contrast Montgomery’s wishy-washy approach, including Superintendent Joshua P. Starr’s mixed signals, with that of Fairfax County, which figured out a way to start high school between 8 a.m. and 8:10 a.m. There, Superintendent Karen Garza made clear she was committed to change, expert help was enlisted in fashioning a solution and board members based their decision on facts rather than anecdotes. Moreover, instead of having to contend with a teachers union more concerned about the convenience of its members, Fairfax officials had a real partner in teachers. “It will be a little uncomfortable for some, but ultimately it will be much more comfortable for our children and ultimately that is what our priority is,” said Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. The Montgomery County Education Association, which released a suspect survey on the eve of the vote, should take a cue.
Montgomery officials had hoped to settle an issue that dates back 18 years, but their lack of leadership almost guarantees that they — or a more forward-looking board and superintendent of the future — will have to wrestle with this again.