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Schools Q&A

By Times Staff Writer
Published May 29, 2003

Why the big problem with school buses and starting times in Pinellas?

Every year the district sets a bus schedule and start times for schools. But the process for the 2003-04 school year was complicated by the choice plan. The number of students eligible for a bus ride will rise from 56,000 to nearly 70,000 under choice, requiring 200 new routes. And the routes in general are more spread out because many students chose schools halfway across the county from their homes. The issue was further complicated when three School Board members pushed the idea of changing the starting time for high schools to 9:55 a.m. from the current time of 7:20 a.m.

What is the "three-tier bus system," and why does Pinellas have it?

Pinellas is not unique. Many districts across the country have a first "tier" of buses that starts rolling before dawn. A second tier generally gets kids to school between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. The highly unpopular third tier forces schools to start between 9:45 a.m. and 10 a.m. or later. Two tiers would be better for everyone, but that would require Pinellas to increase its 700-bus fleet by about 350 buses and hire that many more drivers. The added annual operating cost would exceed $13-million, not including the cost of new buses. As School Board member Jane Gallucci put it: "We can't afford it. We'll never be able to afford it."

Why is this being done on such short notice?

On that point, there is plenty of blame going around. Superintendent Howard Hinesley has attributed the delay to a School Board decision last year to move the choice plan application deadline to Dec. 13 from October. Gallucci blames Hinesley for delays in the choice plan's student placement process this spring. She says he did not assign enough staff to the task. Board member Carol Cook blames fellow board members for not responding sooner to her repeated requests in recent weeks for a meeting on the bus schedule.

Who wins and who loses in this process?

The vast majority of elementary schools will have starting times of between 7:45 a.m. and 8:50 a.m., and their schedules generally remain the same. High schools come under the category: "Be careful what you ask for." School Board members took high school parents and students at their word Tuesday night when many begged to keep the 7:20 a.m. start time, or move it to 7:05 a.m., rather than move it to 9:55 a.m. The School Board chose the earliest option. It could have been worse for middle schools, which originally were slated to start around 10 a.m. The board moved them to 9:45, but middle school parents remain upset about their perennial spot in the dreaded third tier. Four elementaries - Cypress Woods, Ridgecrest, Starkey and Walsingham - got the worst shake, with starting times around 10 a.m. for young children. Administrators will work to improve their schedules over the summer but offered no promises.

Is the School Board's decision final?

For this year, yes. The board gave superintendent Howard Hinesley the power to move school starting times 15 minutes earlier or later, if warranted, after the busing plan starts on Aug. 5. But there are limits. Hinesley can't change a starting time to anything earlier than 7:05 a.m. or a closing time to anything later than 4:20 p.m.

When will I know more about my child's bus and school schedules?

The district transportation department is expected to release school starting times today. Bus schedules and stop locations will be developed over the next month. In mid-July, parents will receive a mailed notice with stop locations and estimated pick-up and drop-off times.

Why are fundamental schools now not included in the busing plan?

For years, fundamental parents have been driving their children to school, and most of them like it that way. Busing for fundamentals was a feature of the federal court settlement that gave rise to the choice plan. Both the district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund believed it should be offered so that families who couldn't provide transportation would not be shut out of fundamentals. When the bus plan came out earlier this month with fundamentals starting school at 10 a.m., fundamental parents balked, prompting the district and the Legal Defense Fund to remove the requirement from the settlement. The change was accomplished Tuesday night with a School Board vote of 5-2. It allowed other elementaries to move to earlier start times.

What about parents who need bus transportation to get their children to a fundamental school?

Details are sketchy, but the district is working on a plan to try to accommodate them. Fundamental schools will work to include parents whose kids need a ride into a carpooling plan. Some fundamental children might be able to catch a ride on a bus that will be going near their home and school. Failing those two options, the district would offer students a spot in another school.

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 13:31:03]

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