A proposal that could save $1 million by shifting bus routes and school start times has sparked outrage among parents across the city who say the plan would inconvenience families and hinder learning, among other drawbacks. The School Board will decide what to do next week.

Share story

Keith Ledford has enough trouble getting his kids up in the morning.

Some days, Ledford and his two sons just barely make it to the bus stop in Mount Baker by 7:33 a.m., when a yellow bus takes the children, aged 6 and 9, to TOPS K-8 School in Eastlake.

Under a budget-cutting proposal being considered by the Seattle School Board, that bus might arrive up to an hour earlier in the fall. School could start an hour earlier, too.

That would mean waking the kids up before 6 a.m. and trying to put them to bed by 6:30 p.m., Ledford says.

“They’ll hate me. They’ll hate me forever,” he said Wednesday morning, standing at the stop with the other parents, all upset with the proposal.

“Can we get the addresses of the School Board members?” Ledford asked the others. “We could show up at their houses at 5 in the morning and say, ‘This is what we (will) have to deal with.’ “

School-district staff members recommended the plan to the School Board last week. It would save about $1 million by reducing buses, streamlining routes and nearly doubling ride times — moves that would make several middle, high and K-8 schools start and end up to an hour earlier and several elementaries start and end up to an hour later.

The one-year plan was developed without public comment. It was announced weeks after the end of the open-enrollment period, a violation of district policy.

The move is not final, but has already sparked outrage. More than 1,500 parents have signed an online petition against the plan, citing sleep deprivation, student safety and the strain put on parents with children at schools with vastly different start times. Several board members also said they oppose the proposal.

In response to the backlash, district staffers are scrambling to come up with other options. A list of alternatives is expected Friday.

But officials say any plan to shave bus costs will upset some parents. And with nearly $20 million in budget cuts already identified for next year, they say they are having to choose between cutting transportation or classroom costs.

“Education is our core mission,” said Duggan Harman, the district’s top financial officer. “We’re to the point where we cannot make any budget reductions without inconveniencing students.”

Some parents say that doesn’t consider an important reality: Start times affect student achievement.

“This goes to the heart of a kid’s ability to learn,” said Kimberley Sonderman, whose eighth-grade son attends Hamilton International Middle School. “A child who cannot sleep cannot learn.”

The board will vote next week on what to do.

Cost-cutting idea

The proposal is the latest attempt by the district to cut transportation costs.

The district’s large size and the lingering effects of a school-assignment plan that let parents send their children to schools across the district means Seattle spends more per student on buses than other Washington districts. Its total transportation budget is $32 million a year.

The district moved to a neighborhood-based assignment plan in 2009, in part, to reduce busing.

Some parents are still stinging from the last remake of the transportation plan, implemented this school year, which cut some bus service, established centralized bus stops and staggered school start times so bus drivers could complete three different routes each morning and afternoon.

That plan was a break from many other Puget Sound-area school districts, which have simpler models and uniform start times at all schools.

It was expected to save $4 million, but saved only half that, mainly because not as many buses could be taken out of service as expected.

This year, School Board members told transportation staffers in February to identify $1 million in new savings. The staffers say the late request — the budget must be finalized in a few weeks — forced them to rush.

“The staff has been focusing literally 24/7 on this,” Harman said. “We had one staff member who slept here Wednesday night.”

The staffers presented their proposal at last week’s School Board meeting.

That presentation was met with anger.

“Recipe for disaster”

Parents have presented myriad concerns.

Many of them did the math — a 7:30 class start time could mean a 6:30 bus, which could mean waking up at 5:30. “That’s a recipe for disaster,” said Luz Villasana, who has two daughters at View Ridge Elementary.

Others cited research that children learn more when they are fully rested.

Finley Edwards, a visiting professor of economics at Colby College in Maine, recently conducted a study that found starting school an hour later led to a 1.6 percent increase in middle-school math-test scores. The effect is even larger among high-schoolers and low-performing students, he said.

Some parents are also worried that early start times would force children to get to school in the dark.

On the other end of the spectrum, parents said, an earlier dismissal time could disrupt activity schedules, give kids more time to get into trouble after school and make parents pay more for after-school day care.

The later start times for some schools are also troubling, parents said.

At Loyal Heights Elementary, one of a handful of schools that already has a 9:30 a.m. start time, Eric Blumhagen said some of his fellow parents have struggled to find morning child care or get permission to start work late.

Some teachers worry that the proposal could lead to longer hours, said Olga Addae, president of the Seattle teachers union.

Finally, parents said they’re upset that they were not consulted before the district proposal surfaced.

District staffers said they could not solicit community comment because of the short time frame the board gave them, but some parents said that is not a valid excuse.

“It’s incredible,” said Bruce Gray, the father of a third-grader at Orca K-8. “I can’t believe the board would consider changes with impacts this big for thousands of kids when there is so much confusion and so many unanswered questions.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com.