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Parents of elementary school students criticize 9:40 start time

LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco school district's effort to save some money has hit home for some elementary school parents, and they're not pleased.

For three years, district officials have sought ways to do things cheaper as the state whittled away millions in funding. Last month, the School Board approved wholesale changes to school start times as a way to save $594,000 in busing costs.

Most schools saw their times shift by 15 minutes or less.

But Oakstead Elementary will move later by an hour, joining 33 other elementary schools in beginning classes at 9:40 a.m.

While parents at other schools might have made peace with the late morning school bell, some at Oakstead consider it an hour too late. The first day of school is Aug. 24.

"It's really ridiculous," said Gary Gatlin, whose 8-year-old daughter attends Oakstead. "How many bosses do you know that you can tell, 'I can't come to work until 11 a.m. because I have to drop my kid off at school'?"

Leaving the kids at home alone to walk to school isn't an option, Gatlin said. And some families cannot afford to put their children into before-school care.

Yet that has been the answer that district officials have offered to the handful of parents who have complained.

"I apologize for the inconvenience this change will cause your family," superintendent Heather Fiorentino wrote in an e-mail to parent Jill Allen, who sent a note registering her displeasure with the time change. "I would like to make you aware of our PLACE program, which provides before and after school care for students at a competitive price."

It may not be the answer the parents want to hear. But it's the best Fiorentino has to offer as she and the School Board seek to manage the district's shrinking resources.

Allen responded that she tried to put her child into PLACE, but found a waiting list to get in.

"They have not got enough places for the children, so the rest of us have got to leave our children home alone," she wrote. "Could you not have asked some elementary parents their views on this move this involves parents too?"

Gatlin had the same question. The district might have posted a School Board agenda somewhere saying the school times were slated to change, he said, but parents didn't hear the news until the last day of school — two weeks after the board voted to impose the new schedule.

"This is going to cause a great deal of problems for a large number of parents," he said.

If so, they aren't making a lot of noise yet.

Fiorentino said she heard only from Allen. Board member Kathryn Starkey said she got no calls or letters.

Board member Joanne Hurley, whose district includes the Oakstead attendance zone, said she had received just one call about the new start time. She had expected more.

Still, Hurley said she has asked the administration to look into how it can help families that need it. But the bottom line looms large in all the conversations.

"I think people realize with the budget constraints that we have, we're doing all we can to minimize the number of buses we have on the road and the number of trips they make," she said.

It's clear the financial savings to the district will disrupt the routines of students and families, Fiorentino acknowledged in an e-mail to Allen. "However, this process has forced us to make many difficult decisions."

Gatlin said he's spoken with about 40 other families who are upset. They aren't sure, though, what their next steps might be. He just hoped that some resolution other than acceptance of the board action might be possible.

"We're not going to lose our jobs to this situation," he said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Parents of elementary school students criticize 9:40 start time 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 8:56pm]
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