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Pinellas school board member (and mother of a high schooler) pledges to sign petition for later start times

By Colleen Wright
Pinellas School Board member Eileen Long, a mother to a high school and middle school student, says she will sign a petition to move high school start times up from 7:05 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The online petition has generated nearly 1,900 signatures.

The new online petition pleads with the Pinellas County School Board and superintendent Mike Grego to change the high school start time from 7:05 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., just like neighboring Hillsborough County.

It says scores would improve, graduation rates would climb and fewer teens would fall asleep behind the wheel. It offers links referring people to research. And it argues that if Hillsborough can do it starting next August, why can’t Pinellas?

In just five days, the petition, posted on and shared on Facebook, has amassed more 2,000 signatures. School Board member Eileen Long, the mother of a junior at Palm Harbor University High and a soon-to-be Dunedin High freshman, pledged on Friday to join them.

"I want to do what’s right for my kids, too, and their friends and their parents," Long said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough high schools move to 8:30 a.m. start time, elementary schools to go earlier

The petition was started by Melissa Gallivan, the mother of three students, one at Palm Harbor University High, one Dunedin High and one at Palm Harbor Middle.

She says she did her research first, and wanted taxpayers to know that a later start time could improve the health, safety and academic success of students.

"I feel like we are here to protect our kids but we have a system in place that’s putting our kids in harm’s way," Gallivan said.

She referred to a news story that referenced a district survey that found parents were split on later start times, with some arguing that the early morning bell allows high school students more time for work, athletics and extracurriculars in the afternoon.

"I think that the fact that people are signing this petition at such a fast rate indicates if the survey was done now, it would be different," Gallivan said. "So much research has been out since the first survey was done."

Long, who was elected last year and is the only board member with school-age children, said high school start times were a frequent question on the campaign trail.

She said it’s an issue in her home too. Her 16-year-old daughter, Kayla, stays up until the wee hours of the morning completing International Baccalaureate homework and gets a few hours of sleep before she wakes at 5 a.m. to catch the 6:15 a.m. bus.

"I’m tired getting up with her," Long said. "I get up with her just so she feels like there’s someone up in the house doing the same thing she is."

Long said she will ask the district to take a serious look at how the buses run and form a committee with parents and teachers from across the county.

"It’s going to be logistically difficult, but what’s more important? That? Or getting the kids the right education they need?" she asked. "I got a big issue with not listening to our stakeholders. The school district doesn’t have all the answers and sometimes you have to look to your stakeholders."

Asked about the petition on Thursday, Grego said he didn’t know who the organizers were.

"I’ve got over 100,000 students," he said, adding: "We’ll look at it and see what’s best for the school district. There’s never a totally right school answer."

Pinellas has been exploring the idea of a later start time for high school students. The district has been using software called Edulog to analyze the efficiency of bus routes, which are the major factor in determining school schedules. Details about the latest Edulog report were not available Friday.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough could start high schools at 8:30 a.m. Why can't Pinellas?

School Board chairwoman Peggy O’Shea said the district’s demographics haven’t changed since it last looked at changing start times. She said the district runs on three tiers of busing, and condensing that to two tiers "just wasn’t feasible" because it would mean purchasing more buses and hiring more drivers.

She said if Pinellas switches the start times around for elementary and high school students like Hillsborough did earlier this month, elementary parents might object to an earlier start time. Under the new Hillsborough schedule, elementary start times will change from 8 a.m to 7:40 a.m. starting in the 2018-19 academic year.

"We might start getting a lot of input the other way because they’re not going to want a 5-year-old standing in the dark waiting for the bus," O’Shea said.

"I agree with all the research," she added. "They have valid points. But what’s going to happen to elementary parents?"

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.