Once again, the Pinellas County School District is changing school start times in an effort to save money on transportation.
The School Board voted last week to change elementary start times — in some cases by as much 50 minutes — and tweak middle school start times by eight minutes.
But this year, a wrinkle was added: The board also voted to release all students an hour early on Wednesdays beginning in August to give teachers dedicated planning time.
Students will stay 15 minutes later the other four days of the week to make up the difference.
The early release day, coming on top of the changes in start times, has thrown some parents for a loop.
"I don't think this was thought through very well," said Dawn Burke, the mother of two children at Curtis Fundamental Elementary in Clearwater. "I understand that teachers need time to plan, but I don't see this as a solution."
Amy Shafran, whose children attend Curtis and Coachman Fundamental Middle School, agreed that the early release change seemed sudden.
"It all happened so fast," Shafran said. "I've talked to some parents who didn't even know what was happening."
School Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea said the board office has received about 100 e-mails from teachers and parents protesting the early release.
"When you look at the total size of the district, that's not a huge percentage," O'Shea said. "The thing is, nobody who got in touch was in favor of it."
The biggest change in start times will be for 10 elementary schools that currently open at 7:45 a.m. They will start at 8:35 a.m. beginning in the fall. All other elementary schools except for the fundamentals and two others — Cross Bayou and Walsingham — also will open at 8:35 a.m., a shift of 5 to 15 minutes for most of them.
Meanwhile, all middle schools, except for the fundamentals, will open at 9:30 a.m., eight minutes earlier than this year's start time.
High school start times will remain the same.
Deputy superintendent Harry Brown said the new start times will save money on transportation. The district hopes to eliminate as many as 100 bus routes next year, Brown said.
The decision to release students early once a week was a compromise between school officials and the teachers union to allow planning time for middle and high school teachers while requiring them to work six of seven periods.
It was part of the teacher's working conditions portion of their contract. Teachers ratified the agreement May 20, and a divided School Board voted 4-3 to approve the contract last week.
Despite the vote, Burke, the Curtis Fundamental parent, said she plans to e-mail all board members opposing the early release of students on Wednesdays. She said she'll encourage all the parents she knows to send e-mails as well.