Opinions split on school start-time issue

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“Until I can stop walking past garbage cans in our schools filled with rain water, I won’t feel comfortable paying for additional buses,” one School Start Times Committee member said.

By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | hosbourne@nwfdailynews.com

NICEVILLE — The room was split Tuesday while committee members, district staffers and the public debated their differing opinions on school start time scenarios and costs.

District staffers kicked off the third and final School Start Times Committee meeting by presenting two scenarios.

The first would start elementary schools at 7:45 a.m., middle schools at 8:30 a.m. and high schools at 9:20 a.m. That plan was said to require an additional 27 school buses with an added cost of $3,654,948.

The second scenario would start elementary schools at 7:45 a.m., middle schools at 8:15 a.m. and high school at 8:45 a.m. That option would require 77 more buses and cost an extra $10,400,323.

Elementary and middle school start times currently range from 7 to 9 a.m. High school students begin classes at 7 a.m.

Tavia Marez, committee member and science teacher at Fort Walton Beach High School, said she doesn’t know how the cost could be justified, especially considering the current condition of the schools.

“Until I can stop walking past garbage cans in our schools filled with rain water, I won’t feel comfortable paying for additional buses,” Marez said. “If the community shows they support later start times by supporting the half-cent sales tax, then we can consider later school start times.”

Thomas Gilbar, committee member and associate chair and lecturer at Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering at the University of West Florida, suggested keeping the same bus route order but moving all schedules to 30 minutes later.

“I don’t think we should do something that costs us more money, but I do believe we can come up with a few better options” he said. “A 30-minute push may be a compromise and could work.”

Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson plans to provide options to the School Board in May after she reviews the committee’s comments, concerns and questions from the meetings. The School Board is scheduled to make a decision at its May 22 meeting.

The School Start Times Committee was formed in February after research from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested high school students should start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The research shows that by allowing students to sleep in, they perform better academically and avoid risks such as drug use, car accidents and depression.

Transportation was not the only issue raised Tuesday. The risk of interfering with extracurricular activities, career technical programs and concerns over more latch-key children was also discussed.

Lee Hale, committee member and principal of Choctawhatchee High School, said with the optional seventh period the county provides, thousands of students have already “figured out” how to get more sleep by scheduling a no class for the first period.

“If we had a magic money tree, I would love to say, ‘Lets all start them at these hours,'” Hale said. “But, the simple fact of the matter is that we have a prohibitive cost. When you have a (prohibitive) cost, choices have to be made.”

Mandy Gomez, a parent of four students in Okaloosa County, said if the current schedule would change, her two younger children would be unable to take the bus route to her job and would have no one to care for them after school.

However, with every comment against changing school start times, someone else offered an opposing opinion. The meeting ended with Florida Department of Health Director Karen Chapman urging people to focus on the health of the students instead of the cost to the school district.

“How much better could we be doing in Okaloosa County if we cared about our kids?” Chapman asked. “Lack of sleep is a serious issue for our nation. I don’t dispute that you need more money, but I think there needs to be a very concerted effort. It’s not just up to me as a health officer to educate.”

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