North Allegheny balks at cost of starting classes later in the morning
Despite significant support from the public and several school board members for the North Allegheny School District to start classes later in the morning to give students a bit more time to sleep in, administrators are recommending against such a change — for now.
Citing the high cost and difficulty of implementing a later start time, Superintendent Robert Scherrer is recommending that other steps be pursued to help reduce student stress, which has been one of the driving forces behind the effort to change the starting time.
Those measures include:
• Developing homework guidelines to reduce the workload
• Analyzing practice and meeting schedules for athletics and extra-curricular activities
• Educating students and families on proper sleep hygiene
• Exploring other time structures during the school day that may help support students
• Look for ways to reduce the longest morning bus rides
The district’s high school students currently start class at 7:25 a.m., which is one of the earlier starting times for schools in the region, Scherrer said. NA’s middle school kids now begin class at 8:10 a.m.; pupils in grade school start at 9 a.m.
The average high school start time across the state is 7:48 a.m.
Several board members said they were disappointed that the district is not approving the start time changes this month so they could be implemented for the next school year.
Administrators concede that while many parents and students support changing the starting time, the cost of implementing the changes cannot be overlooked.
District officials gathered public opinion about changing the start times by conducting a survey in which 5,530 parents, students and staff participated.
Among those who responded, 74 percent favored a later start time for high school students, with the most support for setting the time at 8 a.m.
Several community gatherings held by the district also resulted in comments from a significant number of parents and students who felt the lack of sleep caused by a rigorous academic and extracurricular schedules coupled with an early start time for classes has a negative impact on students.
Among the variety of scenarios presented in the survey, the one that received the most support combined the starting times for high school and middle school students at 8 a.m. and left the start time for elementary school students unchanged.
During a Feb. 20 presentation to the board to set the agenda for the next week’s voting meeting, the superintendent outlined the cost of the two options that were considered in the year-long analysis used to develop the administration’s recommendation.
• One option calls for delaying the start of classes by 15- to 20-minutes for all district students. To do that, five more school buses and drivers as well as additional contracted vehicles would have to be added at an estimated cost of between $201,000 and $680,000 a year.
• A second scenario that was considered has all high school and middle school students starting class at 8 a.m., which would require between 29 and 46 additional buses and drivers and cost an estimated $1.8 to $2.8 million a year.
Because of the cost, which comes at a time when the district is embarking on several expensive projects to expand and update buildings, Scherrer is suggesting that the school board put off considering any changes in the start times until the 2020-21 school year.
Even if the board approves changing the time, the shrinking pool of qualified bus drivers would still pose problems, according to Roger Sechler, the district’s director of operations.
Sechler said difficulty attracting school bus drivers is not isolated to North Allegheny or the region, but rather is a nationwide problem.
He noted that people who hold a commercial drivers license, which is required to operate a school bus, often have more desirable employment options.
Several school directors were upset with the administration’s recommendation to pass on making any changes to the morning schedule.
Citing the survey results, input from the public and the “due diligence” in determining the benefits of a later start time, board member Kevin Mahler said the district is “doing a disservice to our students if we do nothing at this time.”
“I can’t count how many times I have heard people in this (board meeting) room talking about doing what’s best for kids,” he said. “By doing nothing, I believe we are failing in our moral obligation to meet that goal.”
Board members Scott Russell, Christopher Disque and Andrew Chomos opposed waiting for the starting time to be changed because of the cost. Board member Allyson Minton said if a decision is going to be put off, she wants the issue to remain a priority for future consideration.
Chomos said if there is a cost to delaying the start time he would “write that check.”
Board President Richard McClure, while acknowledging the desire among board members to proceed with a change in the start time, noted that the the top-end cost of implementing the time change roughly equals the annual interest the district will be paying on more than $50 million in renovations being planned for Franklin and McKnight elementary schools.
“Everyone is here for the purpose of doing something positive for the students,” he said. “But all of our decisions have a financial impact. It’s not being insensitive when we talk about the dollars and cents, it’s a reality.”
Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .