CLEARWATER — A bill that would make it impossible for Florida high schools to start before 8 a.m. has brought new urgency to a debate that has gone on for years.
Superintendents, school board members and education experts began exchanging emails on the proposed legislation weeks before they came to Tampa on Tuesday for the four-day Voices of Education in Florida annual conference, Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego said.
Morning bells ring at 7:05 a.m. in Pinellas high schools and at about 7:30 a.m. in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
A bill that state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, filed would prohibit Florida high schools from starting earlier than 8 a.m. beginning with the 2014-15 school year. Many superintendents of the state’s large counties, such as Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sumter and Okaloosa, are skeptical of the proposal, Grego said.
“It’s definitely sparked some conversation ... but I think we all agreed that we can do anything we want to do, it’s just a matter of getting it paid for with new revenue,” Grego said. “When you impact one area of a business it impacts another area, so there are concerns about how this would affect our efficiency.”
Gaetz said giving teenagers more time to sleep will result in better academic performance.
Some school districts in Maryland and North Carolina made the switch after studies showed increased academic performance in schools with later starting times, Gaetz said. Teenagers are biologically prone to go to bed later at night and have better cognitive function later in the morning.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the debate in August, saying arguments to start school later were common sense.
Gaetz said: “Kids don’t freaking learn at 7 in the morning, and it’s such an obvious fix. In the state of Florida, we spend oodles of money perfecting the content we deliver to students, but if they’re not ready to receive that content, it’s like spending a bunch of money to purify water to pour in a bucket when there’s a hole in the bottom of the bucket.”
The bill has been introduced in the House and will be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, before being heard in House committees in January or February, Gaetz said.
Superintendents and school boards have “not been the biggest cheerleaders” of the bill, mainly because of concerns about loss of local control and the cost of changing bus schedules, he said.
Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said the bill raises questions over who controls area schools — the school board or the Legislature.
“They already tell us what day we need to start, and now they’re telling us what time we need to start,” Cook said. “I believe more and more they are overstepping their boundaries and not letting school boards make the best decision to meet the needs of their communities.”
Changing bus schedules could have big repercussions, said Michael Bessette, Pinellas’ associate superintendent of operational services.
Many large school districts use the same buses to transport students in waves at different times to save money. If high schools start later than 8 a.m., either middle or elementary school kids would have to take the earlier start time, waiting for buses or walking to school before the sun comes up and risking their safety.
If there were a universal start time for all schools, it would require about three times as many buses and drivers, whose hours would get cut from six or more a day with benefits to about three, Bessette said.
Finding drivers willing to work a couple hours a day with little pay would be an “impossible task,” Bessette said.
At least in Pinellas, an extra hour of sleep may not be worth it to many parents.
When the school district in 2005 considered starting high schools at 9:15 a.m., more than half of the parents polled preferred the 7:05 a.m. start times, Bessette said.
The school district also found that pushing back the bus schedule forced middle school students to start at about 10 a.m. and get out about 5 p.m.
In the Tampa area, most buses reach their first stops at about 5:30 to 6 a.m. to deliver high school students to class by about 7:30 a.m., elementary students by about 8 a.m. and middle school students by about 9:30 a.m. The early start times mean all students go home at about 4 p.m.