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Hillsborough school times will remain the same for 2017-18 but could change the following year

TAMPA — Families in Hillsborough County have another year to adjust to planned schedule changes in the public schools.

While superintendent Jeff Eakins will recommend new hours at a special School Board meeting on April 25, the schedule would not take effect until August 2018.

"All the questions that people don't have all the answers to yet, this will give us time to provide clarity," he said.

And he's making some adjustments.

Middle school, which would have started at 9:30 a.m. and created a child care dilemma for some parents, would instead start at 9:15 a.m. under his revised proposal.

"We've listened to our families in the middle school," Eakins said Monday. "And we believe we can make this schedule work."

Middle school would dismiss at 4:15 p.m., as it does now.

The compromise ends a period of tension among parents who flooded School Board members with phone calls and emails, and sent hundreds of letters to Eakins.

Some said the 35-minute later start in elementary school would make it impossible for them to get to work on time. Parents of high school students, meanwhile, said if their children had to start class at 7:15 a.m. instead of 7:33 a.m., they would not get enough sleep.

Eakins on Monday pointed out that buses already get most high school students to school between 6:45 a.m. and 7 a.m. so they can turn around and start their elementary school runs.

"By 7:15 we have the majority of our students already there," he said.

While he wants to try a 7:15 a.m. start time along with the other changes, he said he's open to revisiting the issue later.

In general, Eakins said, holding off for a year on the changes will give everybody a chance to work through the details.

Among them: Parents of elementary and middle school students are concerned about child care in the morning. The district will expand its child care program, HOST, this year to make it available in the early morning hours.

That way, he said, families will have the coming year to try out HOST and "see what those programs offer."

The extra time also will enable the district to look for donors who can subsidize HOST fees for families who cannot afford them.

It's similar to the way Hillsborough handled a change in state law in 2015 that allowed districts to start their school year in early August. Rather than shifting the calendar right away, the district waited a year to avoid disrupting families' summer plans.

There is also a need to hire more art, music and physical education teachers for 2018-19, as the longer elementary days will provide more time for those enrichment classes. The extra year will allow the district to do that, Eakins said.

Changing bell times was one of the early recommendations of the Gibson Consulting Group, a firm the district is paying $818,000 to find ways to save money. Budget-cutting became a priority in 2015, when, early into his job as superintendent, Eakins learned the district's main operating fund had lost $200 million over four years.

Gibson found that although each school bus should ideally serve three schools every day, nearly half were serving only one or two because of a schedule that did not allow enough time between trips.

Work began in September on a schedule change. The district arranged focus group meetings.

But the general public was not brought into the conversation until late March, and parents rebelled. Opposition mounted despite the district's information campaign, which used emails to parents and video messages on the website.

Eakins said Monday that he is working with the teachers union to put one change into effect right away: Every summer, the district finds out how many of its elementary schools must offer extra reading time, after landing on a state list of low-performing schools.

As Hillsborough has a longer day than the state requires, schools already can provide extra reading time for kindergarten through third grade. Eakins wants to explore the possibility of doing the same for fourth and fifth grades without changing school hours.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or Follow @marlenesokol.