Pinellas officials have devised a new busing plan that would significantly change start times at most schools and potentially save millions as a budget crisis bears down on the district.
The proposal would move high school start times from 7:05 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and middle school start times from 9:45 a.m. to 9 a.m.
Most elementary schools would start at 7:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., a change from a schedule that generally has the first bell between 8:30 a.m. and 8:50 a.m.
An expensive system that sends school buses out in three waves or "tiers" would be reduced primarily to two tiers. A handful of special schools for disabled and struggling students would start at 10 a.m. as part of a small third tier.
Students attending magnet programs and career academies would get to school on "express runs" with fewer stops than normal routes, much as they do now. But a few students with extremely long bus rides — a St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs run, for example — would be offered vouchers to pay for their own transportation, a solution allowed under state law.
Officials have dropped an earlier idea to pare costs by mixing students from different grade levels on buses.
The changes would take effect in the 2008-09 school year, which begins Aug. 19. Administrators are readying the proposal for a review by the School Board.
"I think this is going to be good news for many more families than it will be bad news," said board chairwoman Nancy Bostock, who called the proposal "definitely doable."
She said that the change in elementary start times was a "slight negative trade-off" but that the improvement for middle and high schools would be a "big net gain" for Pinellas students.
In general, start times would return to where they were before the Pinellas school choice plan, which increased busing demand and disrupted the old schedule.
Since 2003, when choice began, the district has struggled to address the resulting problems: predawn bus rides and sleepy first periods for high school students, and a late-morning start for middle schools that forces many working parents to drop off their kids too early or leave them at home unsupervised.
District officials had not expected the situation to ease for two to four years as a new system of "close-to-home" schools gradually took hold and reduced bus routes.
According to superintendent Clayton Wilcox, the district's transportation department simply found a way after "driving harder for answers" in the face of the worsening fiscal outlook. The district expects to cut up to $40-million from its 2008-09 budget.
As the department kept working through the issue, Wilcox said, "We just haven't accepted some of the same answers."
The projected savings would come, in part, from cutting bus driver overtime costs by compressing the window of time students are transported every day, said deputy superintendent Julie Janssen.
Under the current system, the last pickups start after 4 p.m. from middle schools. The new system would push that to before 4 p.m., and high school drivers would start later in the morning.
In addition, she said, thousands of students entering the sixth and ninth grades next year will be assigned to their new close-to-home schools. That will shorten routes and reduce the number of students who get a bus ride.
The system also will respond better to the drop in demand that occurs every school year, Janssen said.
Each year, the district plans routes for about 46,000 students who are eligible for bus rides, but many do not use the service. Janssen said the district expects to save money by being more vigilant about cutting or combining routes as the drop-off occurs.
All told, officials hope to save as much as $4-million but admit it's only a target.
"They're getting it down to a science, as far as knowing where they can save money," board member Jane Gallucci said of the transportation department.
The proposal is "not ideal, but it's better than what we have," she said, suggesting that high school start times eventually should be pushed closer to 8 a.m. She also said the district might want to rotate elementary schools between the 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. start times out of fairness.
Board member Carol Cook said she hopes the plan will turn out to be as good as it looks on paper, especially when it comes to the cost savings.
"We have no idea what the fuel costs are going to be," she said.
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8923.