Montgomery County Board of Education members pressed executive staff at Tuesday’s board meeting for an explanation on why the county’s proposal to push back the high school start time is so expensive.
Last week, Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr recommended against moving the high school start time back 50 minutes, because the change would cost an estimated $21.6 million to implement. Tuesday morning, Starr and the board were greeted by dozens of parents and students holding signs and wearing T-shirts in support of starting school later.
Students said it’s difficult to get the eight hours of sleep they need with the current 7:25 a.m. high school start time. Student board member Justin Kim said he falls asleep, on average, about 2:30 a.m. every night, even if he tries to fall asleep earlier.
Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill said she was disappointed by the superintendent’s recommendation and urged him to find lower cost options for later start times.
“I really want to continue this conversation,” O’Neill said. She then introduced a resolution asking the superintendent to review low-cost options, not to exceed $10 million, for changing the start times.
O’Neill asked why Fairfax County, which is similar in size to Montgomery County, was able to find significantly lost costly options for later start times. The four options being considered by the Fairfax school board range from $2.7 million to $7.6 million, according to a Connection Newspapers report.
Larry Bowers, the Montgomery County school system’s chief operating officer, said county school buses would have 20 fewer minutes each morning to transport students to elementary, middle and high schools, resulting in the need for an additional 153 buses at a cost to the system of about $13 million.
“If you were to flip the high school and middle school start times, then the cost would be much less,” Bowers said. He said Fairfax is keeping costs lower because it’s giving buses plenty of time to make turnarounds.
The plan studied by the Montgomery County school system would change high school start times from 7:25to 8:15 a.m., with middle schools starting 10 minutes earlier at 7:45 a.m. Elementary schools would continue to start at 8:50 and 9:15 a.m. Basically, the drop-off window for buses would be 7:45 to 9:15 a.m., rather than the current 7:25 to 9:15 a.m., requiring extra buses.
The plan studied by school staff would extend the elementary school day by 30 minutes, which would cost the school system an estimated $8.6 million, at least, according to the report.
The school study focused on a single plan based on the recommendation of the 2013 Bell Times Work Group, which issued the first report examining later start times at local schools. It’s not clear in the new report why staff wasn’t directed to study other options, including one that would maintain the current drop-off window, or one that didn’t add 30 minutes to the elementary school day, a proposition that was unpopular among elementary teachers.
Board member Shirley Brandman said the staff study focuses too much on reactions to the proposal that were obtained in surveys of students, parents and teachers, rather than on possible benefits in student performance.
“I think that we not only consider perceptions about change,” Brandman said, “but also weigh some of the expert feedback.”
Ultimately, the board unanimously supported O’Neill’s proposal for the superintendent to review lower-cost options for later start times. The resolution asked that the school system present a new report with less expensive options by January, so that board members can consider them while formulating the school system’s next budget.