MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr on Tuesday recommended against moving back school start times, despite what appeared to be considerable momentum for a proposal he shared last year.

In a press release that accompanies a report to the Board of Education, Starr said he is now recommending against the plan because of more than $20 million in costs and “mixed feedback” in a series of community outreach events.

“I recommended we study changing bell times because I believe it is an important issue that deserves our attention,” Starr said in a prepared statement. “But after receiving the final cost estimates, along with mixed feedback from our community, I do not believe it is feasible or responsible to move forward with these changes at this time. However, we will continue to discuss and monitor this issue.”

Starr’s recommendations — which came after a school system-organized work group — included three changes:

  • Move high school start times 50 minutes later, from 7:25 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. with school ending at 3 p.m. instead of 2:10 p.m.
  • Move middle school start times 10 minutes earlier, from 7:55 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. with school ending at 2:30 p.m. instead of 2:40 p.m.
  • Keep elementary school start times (8:50 a.m. and 9:15 a.m.) as they are but extend the school day by 30 minutes so school ends at 3:35 p.m. and 4 p.m.

But after community forums, Starr concluded that “the MCPS community was not of a single mind about the proposal.” MCPS cited results from surveys of more than 15,300 parents, 45,000 students and almost 15,000 staff members:
Parents were most in favor of the proposal, with 78 percent of those surveyed supporting Dr. Starr’s recommendation. However, high school students (50 percent) and staff (51 percent) were evenly divided on the idea. Middle school students and staff favored the idea (70 percent and 65 percent, respectively). However, a majority of elementary school students and staff were opposed to changing bell times with only 35 percent of students and 30 percent of staff favoring the shift.

There also was significant concern about extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes, which is needed to ensure that school buses have enough time to make their runs. If the elementary school day were extended, there was a strong preference for students to receive breaks during the day or additional time for recess, physical education, or the arts.
MCPS also cited the estimated $21.6 million in costs of making the switch as a factor in Starr’s decision. The costs would include $12.9 million to buy and operate 57 extra general education buses and 96 extra buses for magnet and special education students, according to the report released Tuesday.

MCPS also said it found that adding 30 minutes to the elementary school day — whether by extending recess or lunch or increasing art, music or physical education classes — would cost between $8 million and $47 million a year.

Starr said the school system has other more pressing issues that demand funding.

“Bell times are an important issue related to student success and well-being, but have to be viewed in the context of other priorities and needs the school system must consider,” Starr said in the prepared release. “These needs include hiring more teachers, counselors, and school psychologists to meet the academic and social emotional needs of our students;  expanding the use of technology in the classroom; reducing class sizes, especially in schools with the largest achievement gaps; and investing in other programs that will  meet the individual needs of our students.”

Many MCPS parents have argued a later high school start time would mean more awake and more productive days for the system’s teenage students. The effort also sparked movement on the state level.

In October, Starr argued for his recommendation for later start times in an appearance on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.

“This is not a panacea for academic achievement, as measured by standardized test scores or anything like that,” Starr said. “This is about the state in which our kids come to school. We want our kids to be well-rested.”

On Tuesday, he was singing a different tune.

“This report gives us a comprehensive understanding of the views of the community and the associated costs with changing bell times,” Starr said. “We will continue to monitor this topic and I hope that it is an issue we can address in the future.”

The Board of Education will discuss the issue on June 17.