Starr Recommends Against Proposed Changes in Bell Times
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr is recommending that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) not move forward with proposed changes to school starting and ending times, also known as bell times, citing implementation costs of more than $20 million and mixed feedback from the community. While he does not plan to include the additional funding in his Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 operating budget proposal in December, Dr. Starr left open the possibility of revisiting the issue in the future.
“I recommended we study changing bell times because I believe it is an important issue that deserves our attention,” Starr said. “But after receiving the final cost estimates, along with mixed feedback from our community, I do not believe it is feasible or responsible to move forward with these changes at this time. However, we will continue to discuss and monitor this issue.”
In October, Starr recommended that MCPS consider shifting high school start times 50 minutes later, shifting middle school start times 10 minutes earlier, and extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes. This recommendation was based on a report from the 2013 Bell Times Work Group, which studied the impact that school start times have on the health and well-being of students, mainly those in high school.
Starr asked MCPS staff to gather public input on the recommendation and do an in-depth analysis of the costs and operational impact. He also asked a group to study options for how the additional 30 minutes of elementary school time could be used.
On Tuesday (June 10), Starr released a report that includes a summary of extensive public input from thousands of community members and an analysis of transportation, utility, and staff costs for the proposal. The report will be discussed with the Board of Education at its business meeting on Tuesday, June 17.
Starr noted that Gov. Martin O’Malley recently signed a bill asking for a statewide study of bell times and whether public schools should start later.
“I, and many others, will look forward to seeing the results of this study and whether the state will offer any revenue to offset the significant costs associated with these changes,” Dr. Starr said.
From October to April, MCPS gathered input on the proposed changes to bell times from thousands of MCPS students, staff, parents, and community members. The public input was gathered in a variety of ways, including:
• Four community forums attended by 676 people and other staff-facilitated discussions attended by an additional 960 people;
• Surveys completed by more than 15,300 parents, more than 45,000 students, and nearly 15,000 staff members;
• Seventy-seven “Neighbor-to-Neighbor” discussion groups; and
• More than 740 emails sent to the MCPS bell times drop box.
The MCPS community was not of a single mind about the proposal. Parents were most in favor of the proposal, with 78 percent of those surveyed supporting Dr. Starr’s recommendation. However, high school students (50 percent) and staff (51 percent) were evenly divided on the idea. Middle school students and staff favored the idea (70 percent and 65 percent, respectively). However, a majority of elementary school students and staff were opposed to changing bell times with only 35 percent of students and 30 percent of staff favoring the shift.
There also was significant concern about extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes, which is needed to ensure that school buses have enough time to make their runs. If the elementary school day were extended, there was a strong preference for students to receive breaks during the day or additional time for recess, physical education, or the arts.
“Our staff did an outstanding job gathering input from a broad array of stakeholders and giving everyone a chance for their voice to be heard,” Starr said. “While there has been support for changing bell times from some parts of our community, there is not a clear consensus on this issue.”
The report released Tuesday indicates that the recommended changes would cost at least $21.6 million per year for increased transportation, staffing, and utility costs. This includes $12.9 million to purchase and operate 57 additional general education buses and 96 additional buses to serve special education students and those who attend magnet programs.
The cost of adding 30 minutes to the elementary school day would vary depending on how the time was used. For instance, extending recess or lunch would cost about $8 million a year, while increasing art, music, and/or physical education classes would cost about $47 million per year.
Starr said that student enrollment in MCPS is growing by about 2,500 students a year, and more children each year need additional supports and services to ensure success. This requires more resources just to provide the same level of services to a growing number of students and allows a limited amount of money to fund new initiatives. For instance, the FY 2015 budget, approved by the Montgomery County Council last month, includes just $12.5 million in new initiatives to help address the achievement gap and prepare staff and students for a new curriculum and new assessments.
Starr pointed out that MCPS already anticipates needing at least $135 million in additional funding for the FY 2016 operating budget in order to replace the one-time funding sources used by the County Council to fund the FY 2015 budget, meet the district’s ongoing obligations, keep up with enrollment growth, and invest in strategies that will help the district close the achievement gap.
“Bell times are an important issue related to student success and well-being, but have to be viewed in the context of other priorities and needs the school system must consider,” Starr said. “These needs include hiring more teachers, counselors, and school psychologists to meet the academic and social emotional needs of our students; expanding the use of technology in the classroom; reducing class sizes, especially in schools with the largest achievement gaps; and investing in other programs that will meet the individual needs of our students.”
“This report gives us a comprehensive understanding of the views of the community and the associated costs with changing bell times,” Starr said. “We will continue to monitor this topic and I hope that it is an issue we can address in the future.”