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High school start times: Could they be a talking point in the 2018 Pinellas election?

A school district's bus schedule is the primary factor affecting school start times. A Pinellas County petition to make high school start times later has attracted 5,000 signitures, including three from announced candidates for School Board next year. [Times files]
Published Dec. 4, 2017

It's been years since the Pinellas County School Board addressed high school start times.

But if the issue isn't resolved in the next few months, it could fall to voters as they decide on who should fill four out of seven School Board seats up grabs in the 2018 election.

A petition to scrap the 7:05 a.m. start time has racked up 5,000 signatures, including those of three announced candidates.

Nicole Carr and Carl Zimmermann have entered the race for the District 3 At-Large seat, currently occupied by School Board vice chair Peggy O'Shea. They, along with District 2 At-Large candidate Jeff Larsen, who is vying for School Board member Terry Krassner's seat, have signed the petition.

Could start times be a talking point in the 2018 election?

Clint Herbic, the district's associate superintendent of operational services, has assembled a task force to look into later high school start times. He said the transportation department has created bus system models that may call for varying start times at elementary, middle and high schools.

The task force findings are expected to be presented at a School Board workshop in January.

"Nobody's against later start times for high schools," said O'Shea. "The issue is how do you do it without going bankrupt."

Aside from financial concerns, Pinellas' bus system is complicated by the fact that it accommodates children in dozens of choice programs. The district has 2,500 bus stops exclusively for choice programs, which account for 229 out of 441 routes.

The Pinellas petition began after the Hillsborough County School Board voted in October to change bell times for the 2018-19 school year, including moving the high school start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

RELATED: It's official: Hillsborough high schools move to 8:30 a.m. start time, elementary schools to go earlier

Petition leader Melissa Gallivan, whose children attend Palm Harbor University High, Dunedin High and Palm Harbor Middle, said she is pleased the issue is getting attention from Pinellas candidates.

"It seems like now is the time to finally provide relief to these kids," she said.

Carr, a former Pinellas school district administrator who has worked at the high school level, said the research on school start times merits a hard look by the district. The numbers show that later start times for high schools lead to increased student well being, improved academic performance and fewer auto accidents.

"I don't think it's been laid out clear enough for all the stakeholders to feel like it's really been addressed adequately," she said. "As a clear and transparent decision-making body, we should really have obstacles laid out and explained."

Larsen says he's waiting to see what action plan the district will develop.

"There's definitely a group of people that are passionate about this," he said. "This is coming up as I go all over the county talking about issues."

Veteran School Board member Linda Lerner, who hasn't decided if she'll run for an eighth term, said she supports the "comprehensive, in-depth review" now being conducted by district staff.

"There's not going to be one answer that everyone supports," she said.

Board member Krassner has put forth her own suggestions about how to accomplish later start times, like allowing bus drivers to take home buses in between drop-off and pick-up times.

"I think we're going to have resolved (this) before next year," she said. "I just want to concentrate on what we're doing now and (I'm) not going to be worried about a campaign."

Either way, the start times issue has the potential to shake up the board. Sitting board member Eileen Long, who was elected last year, signed the petition early on.

"Politically, I'm not worried about it," said O'Shea, who hasn't yet filed to run for re-election but says she plans to. "The fact that it's an election year makes no difference for me. If it costs me votes, it costs me votes. I got to do what's right for the kids."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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