BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board decided in March that changing school start times and charging fees for middle school sports participation probably would be good ways to save money.
But Chairman Pat Fagan and other board members agreed to get input from parents at public meetings.
This week, an online survey to gauge opinion on both issues popped up on the district's website. But no public meetings had been scheduled, even though both issues are set to be discussed at the board's May 18 workshop.
Fagan spoke up, and now the meetings will happen after all, he said Thursday.
"That's one thing I asked for and the board members agreed to it," Fagan said. "I want public input not only from the Web page but from the parents themselves."
The meetings are set for May 17. One meeting will begin at 4 p.m. at the district headquarters in Brooksville. The second is set for 7 p.m. at Springstead High School.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said parents will be welcome to speak on both issues at both meetings, though the issue of start times is more pressing because of the planning required to change bus routes to fit new bell schedules.
Dave Schoelles, the curriculum supervisor working on the middle school sports fee proposal, said the board can make a decision on fees in July and still have time to implement the fees in the fall. Fagan said he hasn't ruled out asking for more meetings on that issue.
Parents can go online to participate in the surveys on both issues.
Respondents are prompted to answer "yes," "no" or "uncertain" to statements on each issue.
The statements for new school start times:
• I support later start and dismissal times at our high schools. For example, starting the day at local high schools at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 4 p.m.
• I support later start and dismissal times at our elementary and middle schools. For example, starting the day at local elementary and middle schools at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 4 p.m.
The format is the same for queries on middle school sports fees:
• My student(s) would continue to participate in middle school sports if I was charged a participation fee.
• My student(s) would continue to participate in middle school sports if I had to pay a participation fee of $50 per sport, with a cap on maximum participation fees for families with multiple athletes and/or students who participate in multiple sports.
• My student(s) would be unable to continue to participate in middle school sports programs if I had to pay a participation fee.
The survey includes a note asking anyone with ideas on how to save money in the middle school programs to contact a principal or athletic director.
The methodology isn't perfect, acknowledged district grant writer Eric Williams, who posted the survey.
Results of online polls can be skewed toward more affluent respondents who have access to computers and the Web, Williams said. There is no written form available, but principals have been directed to allow parents access to school computers to complete the survey, Williams said.
The survey site tries to prevent people from stacking the results by limiting the number of responses from the same computer, but a moderately savvy user can get around that, he said.
The deadline to participate in the surveys is May 13 so district staffers can have the results in advance of the board's May 18 workshop.
Blavatt said he will present at the May 18 workshop recommendations on both issues. His recommendations will be based on financial factors, public input and research on what other districts are doing.
"I think the best and most effective way to do it is to get all the information up front, weigh the alternatives and make decisions, and I respect the fact the board felt they needed more information," Blavatt said.
Transportation director Linda Smith said she and fellow staffers felt the online survey was the best, most convenient way for parents to offer input. Though the format for the public meetings hadn't been set Thursday, Smith said it's possible that parents will be asked to vote in a manner similar to the online poll.
"What we can't do is just say, 'What time would you like for your kid to go to school?' " Smith said. "There would be way too many variances for what people in the same classroom would want, let alone the same school."
The board can't make a decision on bell times soon enough, Smith said.
Schools are trying to set their master schedules for next year and have been calling Smith to see if the new times have been set yet. And it will take weeks for her department to come up with new bus routes.
Smith hesitated when asked when her absolute deadline is to have direction in time to make changes for next year.
But, she said, "I certainly would like to have it happen by the end of (the) school (year)."
The last day of school is June 10. The next board workshop after May 18 is June 1.
The goal of new start times is to allow for more double bus routes, allowing for fewer buses on the road. In March, a majority of the five board members said they liked the option that would have elementary students start earlier and middle and high school students later. The option would save an estimated $453,000 and reduce the number of buses by eight.
But a few board members also said they liked the idea of high school students getting to school later, citing research that shows older kids take a while to wake up in the morning, while younger students are more bright-eyed in the early hours. Fagan said he likely won't support that option because he doesn't want younger children up early and negotiating the darkness of the predawn hours in the winter.
Board member James Yant said the public meetings are a good idea because some people want — and deserve — face time with their elected officials.
"When you're dealing with the computer, you're just going to get a certain amount of people," Yant said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.