One thing that became clear on Tuesday is that Wake County families really like 8:30 a.m. start times, especially those whose kids go to elementary schools that start at 9:15 a.m.
As noted in today's article, the school board approved Tuesday this revised 2013-14 school bell schedules for each school. A common theme voiced by board members and the public is the concerns families have with continuing to start most elementary schools after 9 a.m.
Wake operates a two- and three-tier bus system in different parts of the district. This means the majority of buses run two or three routes in the morning and afternoon to save money.
Most Wake middle and high schools are on the first tier that's around 7:30 a.m. Most elementary schools are on the third tier that's at 9:05 a.m. or 9:15 a.m.
A smaller number of schools are on the second tier with start times between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. Those families fight whenever their schools are moved to one of the other tiers.
During the public comment period, Valerie Headlee, PTA president of Baucom Elementary School, thanked the board and staff for dropping the original recommendation to shift the start time 10 minutes later to 9:15 a.m.
But Headlee said that most of the parents who took part in a PTA survey want Baucom to return to its 8:30 a.m. start time on the second tier.
Headlee cited the cost of before-school care that exists now with the 9:05 a.m. start time.
Headlee noted that staff recommended, and the board later approved, moving Apex Elementary back to an 8:30 a.m. start time. Not surprisingly, Bob Snidemiller, Wake's senior director of transportation, previously told the board that Apex's principal loves the change.
Headlee said that Baucom's F&R percentage is closer to Apex Elementary than the year-round elementary schools that start on the third tier.
Headlee said that Baucom families want the schedule more aligned with Apex Middle, which will now start at 8:15 a.m. this fall, because so many have kids at both schools.
Headlee also brought up how four or more school share the same bus stops. She said there are safety concerns when buses are running a little early or a little late.
The next public speaker, Cyndi Tomblin, an Adams Elementary parent, also made a plea to move the school back to the 8:30 a.m. start time. It's now at 9:15 a.m.
Tomblin cited how it's very close feeder school, East Cary Middle School, starts at 7:30 a.m. She said they're on the same campus and should have closer start times.
During the board discussion, board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner mentioned the question she had asked staff for the budget review on how much it would cost to operate all 169 schools on a single tier at 8:30 a.m.
Staff put the estimated first-year cost at $115.6 million when you factor in all the new buses, new drivers, fuel costs, maintenance and loss in state funding from the drop in the efficiency formula.
Kushner said she had asked the question to show why it's "quite prohibitive" to start all schools on one tier.
“We need to communicate with the community what we achieve by having the two-tier and three-tier bus systems," Kushner said. "We save a great deal of money. We have a lot of efficiencies. But at the same time we need to be sensitive to the community when it comes to the bell schedules.”
Kushner noted how the first time she spoke at a board meeting was over a bell schedule change for her child's school.
Board member Bill Fletcher noted the arguments that the Adams parents had made to him. He said that the time gap between Adams and East Cary is a problem that needs to be solved.
While acknowledging there are resource issues, Fletcher asked staff to look at what changes could be made in the next 12 months. He added he was speaking as a taxpayer and not making it a board directive.
Board member Susan Evans said she approved the advocacy of the Baucom parents and would hope they can in the future do more to help move schools off the third tier. She said she's not advocating a single tier but knows that some more buses need to be added to make changes.
“I had one of those late bell schedules once as a parent," Evans said. "I do understand the problems that creates for working families in particular. I’m sensitive to the problems it creates for people who have to find before-school child care. There are a lot of reasons why I think 9:15 is an awfully late time to start school.”
Board member Jim Martin said that while he knows they can't address all the 9:15 a.m. schools, he thinks it's critical to deal with those that align middle schools and elementary schools. He said the nearly two-hour gap between Adams Elementary and East Cary Middle is "completely unacceptable."
Martin said he was also concerned about the last-minute revision from staff to move Walnut Creek Elementary to a 9:15 a.m. to a 3:45 p.m. time. It now runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. as part of an extended day to help the students at the high-poverty school.
At the last board work session, board chairman Keith Sutton asked staff to look at Walnut Creek. He said he was concerned how they've been asking Walnut Creek's staff to spend the extra 45 minutes a day without additional pay for the time.
What emerged Tuesday was to cut Walnut Creek to the regular day for elementary schools.
Martin said he knows that Walnut creek has before-school care. But he said he's concerned about the cost, especially considering the population at the school.
Martin said Walnut Creek has a lot of single-parent families who don't have the flexibility in terms of when they can punch in the time clock.
Martin said he'd prefer at least only moving it to 8:45 a.m.
“It’s going to add challenges to an already challenged school," Martin said.
Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey said they're dealing with a resource issue in terms of having enough buses to deliver students. But he added that Martin's concern was on their "radar."
Board member John Tedesco said Martin's concerns are valid.
Tedesco noted how Walnut Creek is one of the schools recommended for an enrollment cap. He asked if they could at least designate one of the overflow schools not be on the same schedule as Walnut Creek's new time.
Gainey said they'd look into that possibility.
In the end, the board unanimously approved the revised bell schedules.
After the vote, I spoke with Snidemiller.
Snidemiller said the current time for Walnut Creek means it's essentially operating on the second tier in the morning and the third tier in the afternoon. He said they didn't have enough buses to keep Walnut Creek on the second tier.
Snidemiller said moving Walnut Creek fully to the third tier will free up other buses they can use on the second tier.
As for Baucom and Adams, Snidemiller said both schools have large draw areas that make it hard to operate either of them on the second tier. Wake tries to put schools with compact attendance areas on the second tier.
Snidemiller said they were able to move Apex Elementary because it's got a smaller transportation area than Baucom.