LARGO — Pinellas County high school students, and their teachers, might be able to get a few more minutes of shut-eye this fall.
School district officials have proposed making start times about 20 minutes later beginning in August, a move that would be similar but not as drastic as Hillsborough County's recent decision to begin high school at 8:30 a.m.
Pinellas associate superintendent Clint Herbic told School Board members at a workshop Tuesday that the district's plan is to start high schools between 7:20 to 7:30 a.m. for the 2018-19 school year, a slight change from the current 7:05 a.m. start time.
Herbic said the district is optimistic that the change would not affect bell times for elementary and middle schools. Officials, however, may purchase a new software system that would allow the district to look at sliding elementary school start times five minutes later to give more bus drivers more time between runs.
School superintendent Mike Grego said the district felt "very confident" that it could successfully make the later start work with little disruption.
"We want this to go exceedingly well," he said.
District officials have spent months analyzing bus routes and brainstorming ideas to make later high school start times a reality. A parent-led petition pushing for a high school start time of 8:30 a.m. has gathered 5,600 signatures.
The petition's creator, Pinellas parent Melissa Gallivan, called the district's plan "unacceptable."
"By making this proposal, the district is rejecting the substantial body of scientific, medical and education research that has found that high school should start no earlier than 8:30," she said Tuesday. "The proposal will continue to impose a school schedule on our children that threatens their health, safety and academic success."
Gallivan created the petition shortly after Hillsborough school officials announced in October they would adjust elementary and middle school start times so high school students could begin their day at 8:30 a.m., beginning in August.
To get Pinellas high schools to start that late, Herbic said the district would have to switch elementary and high school times, which would have younger students waiting for the bus earlier in the morning. The district also would have to cut back on transportation options for students in choice programs such as magnet schools, he said.
Herbic said 75 percent of buses have long routes that cater to students in choice and special needs programs.
"If we were to move those times dramatically later, we would have to make dramatic changes to our choice network," he said. "That is something that would require more study."
Herbic said Pinellas studied how school districts across the country, including Hillsborough, made later high school start times work. In addition to flipping start times, Hillsborough requires students in choice programs to meet at bus pick-up hubs. It also shortened the length of the school day to widen the window of when buses run.
Pinellas School Board member Eileen Long, who signed the petition to move high school start times to 8:30 a.m., said the potential new times are a step in the right direction.
"No, it's probably not enough, but we're going forward, and that's a beginning," she said. "This is not an easy undertaking, and I knew that."
Although he didn't have dollar figures, Herbic said the new system would be cheaper than what the district currently pays for its current software, Edulog. A routing coordinator had to work through the weekend to determine how feasible a later start time would be.
The district would likely have to hire about 30 more bus drivers, which is something of a concern.
"It's not the cost of that," Herbic said. "It's finding them and hiring them."
Proposed bell schedules will be brought before the board at a workshop March 20. And they would be on the April 10 board meeting agenda for approval.
School Board candidate Nicole Carr, who is vying for board member Peggy O'Shea's District 3 At-Large seat, attended Tuesday's workshop. She also spoke in favor of later high school start times during the public comment portion of a recent School Board meeting.
"Well, I think there's abundant evidence that later high school start times are what's best for kids," she said Tuesday. "And I think the only real reasons that were brought forward to the meeting today boil down to bad software and a lack of bus drivers."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.