LARGO — Pinellas County school leaders promised more than a year ago to work toward later start times for area high schools, following cries from thousands armed with sleep research.
The district hired two private consultants and formed a task force in response. Still, officials ruled in March that the first bell at most high schools will ring at 7:25 a.m. this year, only five minutes later than last.
Staff last week told the School Board that's as good as it's going to get for now, given the school system's limited transportation resources. The district already spends $34 million to bus students, superintendent Mike Grego said, and there's no room in the budget for more.
But the task force is still pushing for better, crunching numbers to find solutions. Members believe a later start time is possible; it's just going to take some time to figure out. The goal is to get as close as possible to 8:30 a.m. — the start time said to combat sleep deprivation in teens and therefore result in better grades and less car accidents.
"It's really a math problem to be solved," said Laura Hine, a task force member from St. Petersburg and a parent of two who works as an engineer.
"It's complicated," she added. "It's not a flick of a magic wand. It's not that easy."
The group so far has found a few ways to reach the 8:30 a.m. high school start time so many have advocated for, but they are "unattractive" options, deputy superintendent William Corbett told School Board members at a recent workshop. He is one of six district employees on the task force, along with associate superintendent Clint Herbic.
One alternative schedule, for example, would force elementary students to catch the bus before sunrise. Another would leave middle school students in class until after 5 p.m.
"There has been a lot of work and a lot of things we've looked at over the last several years," Herbic said at the meeting. "It's culminated to this moment, today. As much as we wish we had more options, they're not there."
Officials shut down both suggestions, refusing to disrupt schedules for elementary and middle school students to better serve those in high school.
"I'm not going to put elementary school students out on the road in the dark," board vice chairwoman Carol Cook said in an interview. "We spend a lot of time … doing everything we can to prevent a tragedy on campus. We can't ignore doing everything we can to make sure they are safe while waiting for the bus."
Grego agreed, saying that putting the district's "most vulnerable, youngest children" in danger is not an option, and that he would expect to hear complaints from parents if elementary school started earlier.
First bells for most elementary and middle schools in Pinellas this year will ring at the same time as last, at 8:45 a.m. and 9:40 a.m., respectively. Four high schools in the southern end of the county — Boca Ciega, Gibbs, Dixie Hollins and Lakewood — will start at 7:10 a.m., five minutes later than those campuses did last year.
Most School Board members have acknowledged the value of sleep research, which says later start times, especially for high school students, are healthier and can lead to enhanced student performance, higher graduation rates and fewer teen car accidents.
Putting that research into practice, though, is nuanced — especially when two consultants say Pinellas' bus system is already running with high efficiency.
"If it's as efficient as it can be, then there's not a lot to do," Cook said.
On top of that, the district isn't in a position to add more buses or drivers, due to money and recruitment challenges, Herbic said. The transportation department has struggled to hire enough drivers for the 400 or so routes in place now. It would take about 700 drivers to move the high school start time to 8:30 without changing bell schedules for younger students, he said.
Those challenges, along with safety rules and traffic patterns, are what make solving the start time problem so difficult, said Colin Young, a parent of two living in Safety Harbor. He piped up during a School Board meeting last year to become a member of the task force, thinking his training as an engineer and current work as a software developer might be helpful to the group.
Some members, Young said, are frustrated that the process isn't moving more quickly. But it's "not for lack of desire."
He added: "I do believe that the people that are working on the School Board and on the task force do have the students at heart. But they also have to work inside the constraints they are given."
Unlike other School Board members, Bill Dudley said the time approved for next year is good enough. The retired coach and teacher at Northeast High in St. Petersburg said his school days started at 7:05 a.m. for many years.
"I know about that sleep research and all, but kids seem to manage and adjust," Dudley said in an interview, calling 7:25 a.m. a "good compromise."
He pointed out that many high school students have sports practices, extracurricular activities and jobs to get to after school. Sometimes, they're working to support their families, so moving dismissal back by another hour isn't feasible.
"We have to look at what's reality," board member Joanne Lentino said at the workshop, in reference to kids' obligations outside of school. She has publicly questioned the value of sleep research, but hasn't completely shutdown working toward a later start time like Dudley.
Meanwhile, board member Eileen Long said she is determined to answer parents' calls to make the high school start time later. She's wants conversation on the topic to continue between community members, the task force and district officials.
"I'm not going to give up, and I don't think the district will give up either," she said. "To say it's a closed issue, I think that's wrong. ... That's not how I believe we should operate."
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.