BROOKSVILLE — Last year, the Hernando County School Board reluctantly approved new bell times, deciding that saving an estimated $750,000 in busing costs justified any inconvenience to students, families and employees.
Turns out the district will get a bigger return than expected: The savings will be closer to $1 million.
"We did as good as I said we'd do and better as far as eliminating routes," said transportation director Linda Smith, who will update the School Board at a workshop Tuesday.
Five elementary and K-8 schools now start 40 to 60 minutes earlier than they did last school year. A half dozen start 30 minutes later, while a handful of other schools saw slight changes, ranging from five minutes earlier to 25 minutes later.
To come up with the new schedule, officials shuffled school times based on geographic location. Elementary schools on the county's more densely populated west side, for example, started earlier because their attendance zones are smaller and allow for shorter bus routes.
The schedule allows drivers to serve two or even three schools, and Smith was able to cut 23 buses — eight more than she had projected. The department has shed 34 employees in the last year, all by attrition.
On top of that, the state is rewarding the district for efficiency. The rider-per-bus average has increased by almost 10, to 76.5. The state will give the district an additional $142,000 in funding, Smith said.
At sparsely attended public meetings in the days before the board vote last year, some parents lamented the inconvenience. Some worried about the extra cost of child care burdening already-tight family budgets. But the response was a far cry from the outrage sparked last June by a vote to change to the bell schedule in Pinellas County, prompting the School Board there to reverse its decision.
The changes in Hernando initially died on a tie vote. The full board later voted 4-1 to approve the new schedule.
Board member Pat Fagan voiced concerns that the plan would mean more elementary students waiting for buses in the dark come winter, but he ultimately switched his vote. He received a couple of calls opposing the change at first, but none since then.
"It seems to be working well," Fagan said last week.
The new times certainly added another wrinkle to the typically hectic first week of school as parents adjusted to the new schedule and Smith tweaked routes. By the end of the second week, however, buses were running on time.
Betty Jo Rapp wasn't happy, though. Her daughter, Jamee, attends West Hernando Middle, the school that saw the biggest change. The first bell is now at 9:05 a.m., 85 minutes later than last year. The last bell rings at 4:05 p.m.
"By the time she gets home, it's dinner, homework and bed," Rapp said Thursday.
Rapp softened a little after a reporter told her the district would be saving more money than expected.
"I'm glad, but it's still hard," Rapp said.
The number of students showing up late dropped significantly compared to last school year, West Hernando principal Rick Markford said. The flip side, though, comes in the afternoon, when more students are leaving early for doctor's appointments and other commitments, Markford said.
West Hernando's coaches switched sports practices from the afternoon to the morning, and teams are still getting good turnouts, Markford said.
The news of even greater savings is welcome to principals, who were told by superintendent Bryan Blavatt last week to brace for a likely reduction in non-instructional and non-core teaching positions as the district shifts resources to meet class-size mandates.
"I'm feeling like we did the right thing," Markford said.
Parents and staffers at Spring Hill Elementary initially grumbled about the first bell moving a full hour earlier to 7:45 a.m., principal Marvin Gordon said. One parent even switched schools. Everyone else accepted the new routine, Gordon said.
"They have adjusted," he said.
Gordon works the car line in the morning and afternoon and says more parents than ever are driving their children to and from school. Parents are taking advantage of a YMCA care program that starts at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m., Gordon said.
Some studies show that younger children are more alert in the morning, a fact cited during the debate over the new schedule. But Christine Repasy says her grandson, a fifth-grader at Spring Hill, had a hard time waking up earlier.
"He didn't want to move," Repasy said. "But he's getting much better."
Spring Hill Elementary teacher Karen Charlton admitted having concerns about facing a roomful of bleary-eyed fifth-graders each morning, and the students were clearly tired at the beginning of the year. But Charlton said it didn't seem much worse than the typical fatigue students show as they shift gears from summer to school.
"They were fine after the first two weeks," Charlton said. "Anyone that appeared to be tired, I just told them they need to get to bed earlier."
Parents at Westside Elementary in Spring Hill griped about starting the school day 55 minutes earlier, principal Nancy Kesselring said. They were especially concerned about getting children to bed early enough on days packed with after-school activities. But the students are showing up to school bright-eyed enough to learn, Kesselring said.
"Kids are very flexible, and they can adjust very easily to new routines," she said.
Blavatt, who strongly recommended the changes, praised students, families and staffers for adjusting.
"It's often difficult to take a global perspective and see what's best for the district," he said. "The people that are grinning and bearing it, they're really heroes."
Debbie Guarneri, whose eighth-grade son, Michael, attends West Hernando, agreed.
"You can't be greedy," Guarneri said. "You have to work together to make things work for the children."
Michael Guarneri may be bearing it, but he wasn't grinning when asked last week about how he was adjusting to the new schedule.
His BMX bicycle beckons after school each day, but he said he's had precious little time to ride. After the dismissal bell rings, "I have an hour and a half, and then it gets dark," he said.
The teen will have more time in the afternoon next year, though, when he moves next door to Central High.
First bell: 7:45 a.m.