Jefferson City Public Schools is considering a more synchronized start time for its schools — all elementary schools at one time and all middle and high school buildings at another.
Jason Hoffman, the district's chief financial and operating officer, ran through the possibilities and pros and cons of each at the Nov. 12 Board of Education meeting. The plan is to gather community input at town halls at each middle school before the board makes a final decision early next year.
School start times are currently scattered between 7:50-9 a.m., though the middle and high school buildings tend to start earlier at 7:50 or 8 a.m.
Hoffman said the setting of the existing school start times was not driven by transportation considerations, and that's created a problem where the district and its bus service provider, First Student, are trying to operate by a system that's not financially optimal while avoiding the need to find more than three dozen additional bus drivers.
The district currently tiers bus routes with First Student, which means most buses drop off students at one school and then run a second route to pick up and drop off students for another school — what's called double routing.
Hoffman said double routing for an 84-passenger school bus costs the district $48,995 per school year, compared to $88,640 for two single routes — each single route costing $44,320.
"Our current schedule isn't working the way it should, and that's because we really don't have enough time between our first tier, really our secondary schools, and then elementaries spread all over — it's not efficient to put together tiered routing," he said.
The district currently has 26 single bus routes and 37 double bus routes, and Hoffman said the opening of Capital City High School will require five to eight more first tier routes. If no other changes are made, that will cost the district an additional $225,000-$360,000, he said.
He also said the district is trying to run a tiered routing system without the adequate time to do it. So, he added, "we're having issues in the service that our students and staff deserve. We're not really giving it to them, and it causes frustration in transportation."
He added: "Sometimes, we would like buses to be at school 20 minutes before school in the morning so kids can get in and have breakfast. We'd like the buses to be there in the afternoon on our second tier route so as soon as they're out of school, the kids can right out and get on the bus, and that's not happening everywhere today.
"We really need to appropriately set our start and end times so we have one hour difference," he said, adding it's already been a request of the elementary schools to have all the same start time, because it's difficult to have collaboration between teachers and staff at different buildings otherwise.
Hoffman said First Student has said there's no financial difference regarding which school starts first, but it would save the district $161,000 for one hour's difference between a unified elementary start time and unified secondary school start time.
He added having an hour to work with should help alleviate bus service issues and make sure buses are where they need to be, when they need to be there.
Having the elementary schools starting earlier would be beneficial for middle and high school students, who Hoffman said do better in school with later start times, according to research.
"There's not really a lot of scientific evidence about what starting earlier for elementary students would be, but there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that says younger students really get tired later in the day," he said, adding some of the district's schools already start earlier than they have in the past for that reason — along with making sure elementary students are supervised when they're already awake anyway.
A later high school start time also means student drivers wouldn't have to deal with rush hour traffic from state workers, he said.
Hoffman said he knows the biggest pushback of a later middle and high school start time, though, will be secondary students not getting home before their elementary siblings in order to provide childcare after school.
Later school end times would also mean later practice releases from after-school activities, though he said having two high schools would offset that somewhat by providing more regional competition in a conference with Columbia, Jefferson City and Sedalia schools — not having to go to St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield as often — and by having more gym space available. "But, there's no doubt it still will be later in the evening, if you're getting out an hour later," he said.
Having elementary schools start later would mean secondary students would have to get on the bus earlier than they do now.
"We're not making a recommendation at all, and if we get the green light to move forward, we'll start scheduling meetings at buildings to get feedback from parents and staff," Hoffman said.
He said the district would schedule community town halls at Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson middle schools, "with the plan to come back with a recommendation of something at the January board meeting for a first reading — allow people to give feedback in open forum — and then come back for a second reading and final approval at the February meeting."
Board member Ken Enloe was concerned there would not be enough time over the holidays to get feedback from the community on that schedule.
"We're walking a fine line of trying to make sure we get adequate feedback and input but also notify parents early enough so that they can make plans for next year. Moving (a decision) back a month is easier for us, for sure, but is it a disservice to our families?" Hoffman said.
Board member Lindsey Rowden agreed schedules need to be consistent, and she said she's read a lot of the same studies that support later start times for older students.
Board members Scott Hovis and Lorelei Schwartz said, though, high school students getting out of school later might decrease the size of the evening workforce.
"Those kids are ones maybe helping mom and dad with the bills at the end of the month," Hovis said, and Hoffman agreed that should be considered. Hovis said the local business community should also be consulted.
Schwartz worried about the availability of student workers for YMCA and Boys & Girls Club after-school care for younger students, as well as later end times for after-school practices.
"I think it's really important to get feedback from all the activities to say, 'Would you be able to flip your practice times to the morning?'" she said.
Superintendent Larry Linthacum said Columbia Public Schools moved its high school start times later, to 9 a.m., when it opened Battle High School. "It was extremely painful, they said when they went through it," but Linthacum said Columbia administrators told him they absolutely wouldn't change their decision, either.