The Pinellas School Board on Tuesday strongly urged superintendent Julie Janssen to pursue a plan that would cut busing costs and change start times for middle and high schools.
Both tasks have long been on the board's to-do list. But two factors have pushed the issue to the front burner: an increasingly grim budget outlook for 2009 and the growing sense that awkward start times have lingered too long.
Starting next year, board members want a later start time for high schools, where the first bell sounds at 7:05 a.m., and an earlier start time for middle schools, where classes typically begin at 9:38 a.m.
"I think we should be very aggressive" in moving toward the plan, said board member Nancy Bostock, a sentiment echoed by other board members.
High busing costs and problematic start times are two of the legacies of the choice plan, a five-year experiment with voluntary desegregation that expired in June, making way for a new system of "close-to-home" schools.
Because choice allowed families to select schools within broad attendance zones, busing costs soared.
This year, the district budgeted $48.6-million for its bus system — up 47 percent from 2002. Fuel costs are up 236 percent over the same period.
Indications are that the close-to-home system is starting to ease the strain on the bus system, but it isn't happening fast enough for the School Board.
In a workshop Tuesday, the board sent a clear message to Janssen that it is willing to consider any number of changes, even politically painful ones.
At present, school buses go out in three waves, or "tiers," every morning and afternoon. The first wave serves high schools, the second covers mostly elementary schools and the third mostly middle schools.
The goal is a cheaper and more efficient two-tier system. But the only way to do that is to reduce the number of routes and eligible student riders.
The idea of a close-to-home system is to reduce or eliminate bus rides for thousands of students. But the change will come gradually because the School Board allowed students to finish out at their existing choice schools. The board also continued bus service for those students and allowed their younger siblings to join them.
The effects of those decisions made for a rude awakening Tuesday. Administrators released maps showing that many students still live far away from schools they chose under the choice plan.
"This is crazy," board member Janet Clark said. "We can't be all things to all people."
Among the long- and short-term fixes under consideration:
• Closing more schools on top of the three schools the district shut down this year.
• Using a system of hubs that would require some students to change buses on the way to and from school.
• Expanding magnet programs, which offer limited busing, and fundamental schools, which offer no bus service at all.
Janssen said administrators will study several changes and report to the board in December.