Pinellas officials on Thursday abandoned a proposal to change middle and high school start times after discovering it was not the money-saving idea they envisioned.
The plan would cost the district an extra $3.25-million a year — a huge swing from its initial billing last month as a brainstorm that would save as much as $4-million a year.
High school classes were going to start at 7:30 a.m. instead of 7:05 a.m. and middle school start times were going to move 45 minutes earlier to 9 a.m. The changes were to have been in place for the start of the 2008-09 school year, Aug. 19.
But no more.
The board agreed at a budget workshop that start times will remain the same for now, with the exception of proposed changes at selected schools.
The turnabout was the result of an apparent administrative error that left School Board members frustrated as they worked through proposals to cut nearly $40-million from the budget.
The plan first was aired April 24 in a St. Petersburg Times article based on interviews with outgoing superintendent Clayton Wilcox and his interim replacement, Julie Janssen.
Wilcox's last official day is Tuesday, but he's using vacation days for the remainder of his term, leaving Janssen in charge.
The plan was going to save money on driver overtime by shortening the daily window when buses would be operating. Students were to be delivered in two waves or "tiers" instead of the current three-tier plan that sends buses out in pre-dawn, early morning and mid-morning waves.
By Thursday, however, the district's transportation staff was projecting that the two-tier plan would require an extra $1.68-million to pay for more routes and $1.57-million to pay 40 additional relief drivers.
Two added problems: The 42-minutes that the average student rider now spends on buses would have increased. Also, the proposal would have required pressing older buses into service, increasing maintenance costs.
"That was not what was portrayed by this district in the past, and there's an awful lot of families out there relying on what we told the press about three weeks ago," board chairperson Nancy Bostock said.
"I don't know if I missed some memos or what happened here, but this really caught me by surprise."
Said board member Janet Clark: "It just really casts a shadow on all of these projections."
The Times article portrayed the proposal as preliminary and subject to board approval.
Adding to Thursday's confusion, Lanse Johansen, the district's chief financial officer, said his projections have never contemplated a decrease in busing costs for next year.
"We too were surprised at what we read," he said.
Janssen apologized to the board and explained that the proposal to change start times came out of an April meeting with about 12 people, including the district's transportation staff.
"Apparently they met after that meeting and they looked a little closer at the design," Janssen told the board.
She said in an interview that the proposal probably would be reintroduced next year when the new student assignment plan takes hold. With more families attending their "close-to-home" schools, she said, a two-tier plan might be more doable.
Thursday's silver lining: Johansen projects that busing costs for 2008-09 will increase by $2.4-million, down from the $5.4-million increase he projected earlier.
Also Thursday, the board tentatively agreed to change the middle school schedule to seven periods from the current six-period day in place at most schools. The change allows more space in the day to comply with new state mandates for daily physical education classes and career education. It also offers more elective classes to boost kids' interest in school, especially struggling students whose elective slots are taken up by mandatory remediation classes.
In addition, the change is projected to save the district money.
Teachers would be with students for six of seven periods instead of the current five of six periods, which works out to a greater percentage of the day and an increase in efficiency that would save about $2.2-million.
The plan has its drawbacks. It contemplates adding 14 minutes to the school day, which board member Jane Gallucci said was untenable. Middle schools already let out at 4:05 p.m., she said. "Might as well keep them overnight at this point, feed 'em dinner."
Officials indicated, however, that there may be ways to reduce the 14-minute extension.
Another problem is that the added period requires teachers to work longer and plan for more students with no extra pay, in violation of their contract.
But teachers union officials said there are ways to make the schedule more palatable by building in flexibility. One idea: teams of teachers from different subject areas who operate with a set group of students and change subjects at their own pace.
Said union president Kim Black: "The beauty of it is the bell doesn't run the day."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8923.