Pinellas School Board votes 6-1 to approve later school start times

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Joanne Lentino, Pinellas County School Board Candidate, District 1.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Joanne Lentino, Pinellas County School Board Candidate, District 1.
Published April 10 2018
Updated April 10 2018

LARGO — Hillsborough County’s recent decision to start high schools an hour later, at 8:30 a.m., next year inspired 6,300 people in Pinellas County to sign an online petition. Citing student sleep deprivation and related health issues, they wanted their district to do the same.

But at least for the 2018-19 school year, they’ll have to settle for a more modest change.

The Pinellas School Board voted 6-1 Tuesday to push all school start times 15 or 10 minutes later starting in August.

That means most high schools will start at 7:20 a.m. rather than 7:05 a.m., and most elementary and middle schools will start 10 minutes later, at 8:45 a.m. and 9:40 a.m., respectively.

"This journey’s not finished," school superintendent Mike Grego said. "And we do want to continue to hash out what the best opportunity will be for our students."

Board member Joanne Lentino, the sole dissenting vote, said she informally surveyed high school students who said they didn’t want to change the time. She also said the 15-minute change doesn’t justify spending $900,000, the price tag for hiring the added bus drivers that will be needed.

Associate superintendent Clint Herbic, tasked with developing new start times, said the district probably would have spent that amount anyway to shorten already-lengthy routes, even if the new times were not approved.

"If you have a child that’s in a high school or a middle school and you have the ability to have your child go to sleep a little earlier, I think that would be a responsibility that would fall to the parent," Lentino said. "Maybe a child doesn’t want to go to sleep at 10 o’clock."

The remark drew exasperated chuckles from supporters of a later high school start time who came to Tuesday’s meeting dressed in red.

Lentino explained later in an interview that there was not enough Pinellas-specific data to show that a later high school start time would lead to the hoped-for benefits, including higher graduation rates, lower obesity rates and fewer teen car crashes. Some parents have touted those outcomes, citing studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"We had no data to show that it would change," Lentino said.

After the vote, Melissa Gallivan, who organized the petition, addressed board members during the public comment period before she was cut off.

"When more than one School Board member denies or downplays the studies and then goes into the community and takes informal surveys and does not share or explain the dangers of start times, of course everyone walks away not wanting change and they bring that back to their friends," she said. "Is that how we make policy in Pinellas County?"

Also Tuesday, the board gave initial approval to a plan to transform the struggling Midtown Academy in St. Petersburg into the Center for Cultural Arts & Gifted Studies.

District officials proposed eliminating the school’s middle grades and making it an elementary gifted center for south county students and a cultural arts magnet for neighborhood students for the 2018-19 school year.

Students in the cultural arts magnet would enjoy field trips to surrounding institutions like the Dalí Museum, the Carter G. Woodson Museum, Mahaffey Theater, the Florida Orchestra and the Morean Arts Center, and get gifted-level services as part of a "schoolwide enrichment model."

The school will not accept any kindergarten students for the gifted program, but will accept kindergarten applications for the cultural arts program. The application window will be open from Monday to May 4.

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