LARGO — Faced with overwhelming opposition from parents, the Pinellas County School Board voted 6-1 Tuesday to overturn its decision to change school start times this fall.
"Did I make a mistake?" board member Linda Lerner said after hearing from about a dozen parents. "I think I did."
Two weeks ago, board members approved a new bell schedule that pushed elementary start times an hour earlier to 7:35 a.m. at 10 schools, and nearly an hour later to 9:20 a.m. at 28 schools.
It also moved middle school start times 10 minutes earlier at 9:20 a.m., while keeping the unpopular high school start time of 7:05 a.m.
Superintendent Julie Janssen said the plan would save $2.25 million, one step on the way to cutting the $26 million needed for a balanced 2010-11 budget.
But ever since the June 15 vote, dozens of parents have e-mailed and called the board and Janssen to protest a decision that has significant ramifications on their lives and budgets.
Jake Mills, 37, a paramedic, told the board Tuesday he hasn't received a raise in several years. Under the proposed bell changes, he and wife, Amy, would have to pay for after-school care for their daughter, a first-grader at Cypress Woods Elementary.
Not to mention the fact that his daughter would be up at 5:45 a.m. to be at school at 7:35 a.m., putting her lunch time around 10 a.m. Mills said he had visions of waking his exhausted daughter for dinner.
"I really don't even know how we're going to afford it," he said.
Board chairwoman Janet Clark had dissented during the original vote, though several members expressed hesitation.
Lerner moved that the board overturn the change and re-establish the same start times from 2009-10. Only Robin Wikle dissented, citing budgetary concerns, though even she agreed that the start times "are not conducive for best learning."
"We have to balance a budget," Wikle said. "Flip-flopping around isn't the most productive thing to do for our parents or our employees."
Like Lerner, board members Peggy O'Shea, Mary Brown and Nina Hayden said that despite their original support for the plan, parents' objections made sense. Some said they felt rushed.
"I believe that I made a decision too quickly and without looking at all the consequences," said Hayden, adding she didn't know the first time around it could impact 38 elementary schools.
Parents emerged from the meeting empowered.
"I just can't believe they actually listened to us," said Dawn Zabroske, who took off work Tuesday to appeal the change on behalf of other working parents. Zabroske would have had to drop her daughter off almost an hour before the first bell at 9:20 a.m.
Unanswered is where the additional budget savings will come from.
Associate superintendent Michael Bessette said the district can still eliminate 20 bus routes for a savings of $900,000 without affecting the bell schedule.
"What it's going to create," Janssen said after the meeting, "is a greater challenge in finding $1.3 million (more to cut)."