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Hernando board under pressure to change school start times

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando School Board on Tuesday inched toward a new bell schedule and balked at imposing fees for middle school sports participation, opting instead for superintendent Bryan Blavatt's request to research a districtwide activity fee.

Board members expressed interest in the proposed bell schedule brought by Blavatt that he said has near universal support of the school principals. But the board stopped short of giving staffers the green light to put the new schedule in place by the fall despite Blavatt's warning that time is short to make that happen.

"Saving $750,000 has my interest," board member John Sweeney said, referring to the amount of money district transportation director Linda Smith estimates the new schedule would save. "I think we should look at it more thoroughly."

Under the proposal, five elementary or K-8 schools would start 40 to 55 minutes earlier: Deltona, Explorer, Spring Hill, Suncoast and Westside. Six elementary schools would start up to 30 minutes later: Brooksville, Chocachatti, Eastside, Floyd, Moton and Pine Grove.

Challenger K-8 and Parrott, Fox Chapel and Powell middle schools would see slight changes to start times, ranging from five minutes earlier to 25 minutes later. West Hernando would start 85 minutes later.

Central and Springstead high schools would start a few minutes earlier. Hernando and Nature Cost Technical high schools wouldn't change start times. Weeki Wachee High, in its first year, would start at 9:15 a.m.

The schedule combines elements of two other proposals brought by Smith earlier this year and would save as much as $250,000 more. It groups schools according to location in the district and could cut the number of buses on the road by 15.

Chairman Pat Fagan and Dianne Bonfield continued to be concerned about moving up elementary start times and sending younger children out in the dark each morning during winter months. "I'm going to go for safety over programs, and that is a very difficult decision for any board member to make," Bonfield said.

Blavatt said the schedule, from his perspective, does not raise serious safety concerns.

Board member Sandra Nicholson noted that the changes for the most part would not be drastic ones.

The negligible change to the high school times alleviates another concern board members had expressed: Students would still have time in the afternoon for extracurricular activities and part-time jobs.

Board member James Yant said he supported the proposal. "If we want teachers to remain in the classroom I think we're going to have to be more conservative," Yant said.

Maria Rybka, principal at Chocachatti Elementary, told the board she and her colleagues agree with that sentiment. Rybka acknowledged that the change would present challenges, but the money saved could mean jobs preserved. "We do know the economy is going to present some challenges and we think using transportation to save some money is a good direction," Rybka said.

Both Blavatt and Fagan said they expect the proposal to be formalized and placed on the board's June 1 workshop agenda. Time is critical because principals are waiting for some resolution so they can create master schedules for next year.

Smith has said she could implement the changes to bus routes for the fall if the board makes a decision by the end of this school year.

At the start of the discussion on middle school sports fees, Blavatt offered an alternative by proposing an across-the-board activity fee for extracurricular activities for all grade levels. Blavatt said the fees have worked well in other districts throughout the country and are met with little controversy. He said he felt confident the fee would be much lower than the $50 fee the board had considered to help cover the $200,000 cost to provide middle school sports. "I don't feel by looking at just sports we're being fair," Blavatt said. "We need to look at all these activities because it's getting more and more expensive."

The board agreed with his recommendation to form a committee of district staffers and possibly parents to look at the issue and come back with a recommendation.

•••

With support from the teachers union and a recommendation by Blavatt, the board was poised Tuesday to join Florida's second attempt to garner hundreds of millions of dollars through the federal Race to the Top grant.

The grant, if awarded, would mean $700 million for Florida, and $2.2 million for Hernando, to make sweeping changes in how teachers are paid and evaluated.

The agreement between the state and school districts this time around gives districts more flexibility and an easier way to opt out than the first incarnation back in January, Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, told the board Tuesday.

Vitalo refused to sign the first agreement between the state and the district, just as nearly all of his counterparts throughout Florida did. The board voted to submit the memo without Vitalo's signature, but the state didn't get the grant.

Vitalo indicated Tuesday he would sign this time. "I'll borrow a quote: 'We cannot change the direction of the wind but we can adjust our sails,' " Vitalo said. "The first time around, they didn't allow us to adjust our sails, so we were going to get tossed around. This time around, we do have these escape clauses in there."

The board was expected to formally vote on the application at its regular meeting Tuesday evening.

"We'll look at going for a swim and if the water's too cold, we'll get out," Sweeney said. "But I'm very suspicious and cautious."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando board under pressure to change school start times 05/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 10:41pm]

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