Pasco frets over plan to change school start times: ‘Not an easy decision’

Parents, officials see pros and cons of a proposal to address a bus driver shortage. The School Board votes Tuesday.
Buses arrive at Sunlake High on the first day of classes for Pasco County students in August. The school district has proposed changing bus schedules countywide in January because it doesn't have enough bus drivers.
Buses arrive at Sunlake High on the first day of classes for Pasco County students in August. The school district has proposed changing bus schedules countywide in January because it doesn't have enough bus drivers. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 1, 2021

Facing an “all-time high” bus driver shortage, the Pasco County school district has fast-tracked a plan aimed at ensuring all children get to school before the first bell rings each day.

To do so would mean resetting the bell schedule at every school in the county, to deliver kids in four stages instead of the current three. Most children would experience a shift of around 30 minutes earlier or later, though some would see changes of more than an hour.

Superintendent Kurt Browning introduced the concept in an Oct. 18 memo to parents, followed by a School Board workshop the next day. He has asked the board to vote on the measure Tuesday.

Related: Short on bus drivers, Pasco schools propose new start times

That time frame hasn’t given parents, students and staff much time to digest the idea and provide feedback before board members decide on the major mid-year shift. The fact that the board meets at 9:30 a.m. has raised questions about the process to address a subject that would impact everyone in the district.

Superintendent Kurt Browning
Superintendent Kurt Browning [ Pasco County Schools ]

In the past, the board has postponed actions on items with high public interest, such as proposals to close schools, until evening meetings. During the pandemic, Browning attended Zoom town hall sessions to discuss topics such as school reopening, attracting hundreds of participants.

“It is very, very hard for working parents to go,” said Jessica Williams, a Chasco Elementary parent who opposes the plan because of how it could impact her daughter’s learning and after-school dance lessons. By 4 p.m., she said, her child’s concentration is “completely over.”

Williams and others have used social media to discuss the recommendation, encouraging one another to reach out to district officials in any way possible. Their conversations, like the large amount of correspondence to board members, have revealed a lack of consensus that highlights how any decision the board makes will not satisfy everyone.

Many do not favor the plan, suggesting it would create too much chaos. Some argue that changing the times does nothing to address the underlying problem of attracting bus drivers.

“The burden of this current shortage should not fall on the shoulders of the few drivers we have left,” Wesley Chapel parent Chris Kunkel said via email. “There is increased money coming in from both the federal and state governments based on allocations made during the pandemic. That money should be used to entice new drivers.”

Some take issue with the times that have been set for each school, contending they are too early or too late.

Michelle Pearson’s three children attend Trinity Elementary, where the start time would change from 9:40 a.m. to 10:10 a.m. under the district’s plan. She said it “boggles my mind that children who are up the earliest — my kids are up by 6:30 a.m. — won’t even start learning until 11 a.m.” She and many others suggested elementary schools should open before middle and maybe even high schools, whose students need more sleep.

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The district proposal also has its share of support, with some saying the shifts would better serve students and benefit their families.

Jacky Pharel’s daughter attends Anclote High, which would begin at 7:20 a.m. under the plan instead of the current 8:45 a.m. She said via chat that her daughter “loves the idea for an early start and early release.”

Adding to the mix are the concerns of teachers and bus drivers, whose jobs would be affected by the change.

“Remember teachers have children too, and it will make our already very difficult day teaching … even more difficult,” Longleaf Elementary teacher Julie Smith commented via Facebook.

Added bus driver Mayda Rodriguez: “This will mean that I will have to get up at 4 a.m. and I probably won’t be home till 7. As it is now we are overworked, overwhelmed with the extra runs and double loads that we’re doing now.... If they think that this is gonna work they are sadly mistaken.”

School Board members said they’re hearing both sides of just about every argument out there.

School Board member Allen Altman
School Board member Allen Altman [ Pasco County Schools ]

“I’ve had a multitude of parents with different opinions and well-meaning intentions and ideas that they have suggested,” board chairperson Allen Altman said. “I’ve been asking questions and trying to make sure if there’s anybody who has come up with an idea, that we consider it.”

They’re grappling with the input that’s coming in through phone calls, emails and conversations, along with the fact that children in some parts of the county are left waiting at bus stops as long as an hour, with thousands missing core lessons daily because they’re arriving so late.

The biggest problems are occurring in the far west and east sectors of the county.

Assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn, who is spearheading the district’s planning, said she has contacted other districts with similar problems to seek possible solutions. If there were a simple answer, she said, “we would do it.”

But nothing is as straightforward as it might appear, Kuhn said. Flipping the times for elementary and secondary schools might make sense, she said, but it would represent a massive overhaul with many more implications than changing times by a half-hour or so.

Increasing pay is a desirable goal, she said, but noted that districts with higher salaries face shortages similar to Pasco’s.

“I have heard people are going to quit if we do this,” Kuhn said. “But we’re also losing people right now in transportation because they don’t like the current state of things.”

The district is moving fast, officials said, so everyone can have as much time to prepare as possible if this plan goes through. No one suggested they have all the answers, much less the best answer.

They just don’t want to continue with the status quo.

“This is not an easy decision,” said board member Megan Harding, who added she has not decided which way she will vote. “I don’t think there’s going to be a popular decision.”

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