The Seattle School Board is moving fast on a plan to spread out class start times in reaction to a lack of bus drivers. The vote on moving to three start times was originally set for May 18 – less than a month since families learned of the plan – but has now been postponed.
But records show that district employees had been moving in this direction since at least last fall.
Frustration among parents, and at least some of the seven School Board members, is growing. Critics argue the move may save some money — the district estimates $5 million per year — but it upends family schedules.
“How it landed for me, I don’t see how we centered children in that decision,” board member Michelle Sarju said at Wednesday night’s meeting. “That’s our job — to center children. We cannot put money first. We cannot put our special interests first. We have to put the interests of our students first.”
The nationwide bus driver shortage has hit Seattle Schools hard. Buses have been consistently late, causing students to be tardy. At one point the district had to suspend more than 100 routes, and the district outsourced vans to transport students.
Fifty routes are still suspended. District officials say changing start times would help, allowing Seattle Schools to cut 70 of its 364 buses and saving the district at least $5 million.
But parents are scrambling to figure out how to adjust to new schedule times. Sarju said she has received an overwhelming number of emails from families, and one stood out to her: “A family said we can’t afford another car but we may be forced to buy one in order to make this [bell change] work.”
If the changes pass, the district would switch to three start times: 7:40 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Currently the district has two start times: 7:55 a.m. and 8:55 a.m.
The majority of elementary schools would start at 7:40 a.m., although some are scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. All high schools and some middle schools would start at 8:30 a.m., and a mix of elementary, middle and K-8 schools would begin at 9:30 a.m.
One board member has made it clear that she won’t support the change.
“I oppose this change because I do not believe that it is in the best interest of our students, families and staff,” Vivian Song Maritz said in a statement. “It will have ripple effects throughout our city.”
Sarju hasn’t said how she would vote. And so far, none of the seven board members has emerged as the champion of the proposal.
At this time, the board is not considering another plan to address the busing problem, which was made worse by a change in school start times a few years ago.
Back in the 2017-18 school year, Seattle went from three start times to two so teens could sleep in — as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But the schedule changes dramatically worsened existing transportation issues. The number of times when buses were delayed or didn’t show up increased by 833% over two years. Having two start times instead of three gave bus drivers less time to finish their routes, and they could only manage one route without delaying the next. The result: More drivers were needed.
Many families are not happy with the idea of pushing back the beginning of elementary school again, with a change.org petition having received more than 1,000 signatures. At first the School Board was going to have most elementaries start at 7:30 a.m., but recently revised the plan to 7:40 a.m.
For most parents, this proposal has come to light only recently, though district administrators have been considering it for months.
Board member Liza Rankin criticized how the changes were communicated to families. The district had been anticipating the change since last year, she said, “but unless you had been watching budget meetings where the possibility of [bell time changes] was buried, families had no idea it was coming.”
As early as November, the district signaled there would be a “strong likelihood” it would go to a three-bell schedule in a request for bids for a new bus contract. The district’s $40 million bus transportation contract with First Student ends in August.
“I would’ve wanted the district to give more notice,” said Seattle parent Emily Carmichael. “They’ve known about this problem for months.”
Schools Superintendent Brent Jones said his team is responding to the criticism, including delaying a scheduled School Board conversation last Wednesday to give people more time to participate.
“Over the last several weeks we’ve been listening to the concerns from schools, families and partners,” Jones said. “We hear you and we are slowing down the decision and making [the process] so that we can continue to identify ways to alleviate the concerns.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story said the vote to move to three start times was set for May 18. The vote has been postponed.