Over the past several weeks, a lot of information has circulated about the District’s efforts to reduce a significant structural deficit in their Transportation Fund, and about the impacts those efforts may have — especially related to start times.
Most recently, the school Board discussed the issue at their meeting last week, hearing recommendations and talking about what direction they may move. There were several opinions shared by members of the community and by Board members. In conversations I have had since the Board meeting, I’ve shared some of the highlights from that discussion. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to attempt to clarify that information and make sure all of you receive the same message.
Over the last year, the District has been monitoring the Transportation Fund budget and what changes they may have to explore to close the 1.3 million dollar structural deficit that exists. This is not a one-time shortfall. For several years, the State has been providing Districts with significantly less than they need — and less than they are promised. Specifically, the amount of money that the State provides Unit 5 does not support the level of service that the District provides for transportation. Revenue is not increasing. The District is faced with a choice between taking money from another fund to pay for transportation or adjusting the service that they provide.
A committee inclusive of anyone interested (parents, educators, administrators, Board members, community members) started meeting in October to address the deficit and make recommendations about how the District can close the gap. They presented their findings to the Board and to a smaller committee of educators and administrators. This smaller committee examined their findings and made some recommendations to the Board.
The Board is currently considering these recommendations. You can read more about the recommendation, survey results, etc. on the Unit 5 website.
One significant change being considered as a result of the need to close the Transportation budget gap is school start times. One scenario presented to the Board is to move to a 2-tier system with the Elementary day starting first. Another scenario would adjust the school days and maintain a 3-tier system but to have enough time between each level to reduce the number of buses and routes needed. (The current start times and those included in these scenarios may be seen below in the FAQ provided by the District.)
The committee considered a variety of resources when determining their recommendation of the two-tier system. Current research about the most effective use of instructional time for students asserts that elementary students are more engaged earlier in the day and tend to “fade” as the day wears on. Conversely the junior and senior high students tend to learn better later and do not benefit as much from an early start time. Their research into best practice was extensive. Additionally, the committee surveyed staff, students and parents/community members. The committee, once they considered all of the information, data and feedback, recommended Scenario 1 with a 2-tier system that had the Elementary day beginning at 7:40, followed by the High School (8:25) and Junior High (8:40).
Board Meeting on March 2
The school Board considered the recommendation at their meeting on March 2. During the public comment section of the meeting, 17 parents made public comments against the two-tier recommendation, while 8 parents made public comments in favor of the two-tier system.
The Board was not ready to make a decision and they have not yet made a decision. The comments and conversation among Board members seemed to be “let’s solve the budget deficit and then think about start times.” They seemed hesitant to move forward with the recommended 2-tier scenario, considered continuing with a 3-tier system (perhaps Scenario 2) and then investigating a change like Scenario 1 for the 2017-18 school year (yes, that could mean one change next year and a different change the following year).
Where does UFEA Stand?
Several have asked me what they should do about this issue. And others have asked where UFEA stands on the issue. I want to offer a couple thoughts.
What should individual members do if they have a strong opinion or concern?
If individual members have a strong personal opinion about the decision, they can and should let Board members know. You could contact the Board by email or attend the Board meeting this Wednesday evening if you would like.
What is UFEA’s position?
UFEA believes this is a decision the Board was elected to make, has the authority to make and needs to make as quickly as possible because of the potential impact on UFEA members, other staff, students, parents and the community. Further, we believe it would be difficult for the Association to take a position on one proposal or another because we recognize members hold a variety of opinions and preferences on the issue for a variety of legitimate reasons.
We do believe that as the Board considers the question and makes their decisions, that they:
- should do so in a timely manner so individuals may deal with the impact of the decision.
- should consider not only the interests of parents and the community, but also of staff and of the students we educate every day.
- should make one decision. In other words, they should not make one change next year and then a different change the following year.
Thanks for reading — and for all you do. Every. Day.
The District has provided the following FAQ which you may find helpful:
Unit 5 is considering changes in start times for the 2016-2017 school year to address a $1.3 million budget deficit in the Unit 5 Transportation Fund.
What are the current start times?
7:15 am – 2:30 pm – High School
7:45 am – 2:57 pm – Junior High
8:45 am – 3:30 pm – Elementary
What are the proposed start times?
There are currently two scenarios being looked at for the 2016-2017 school year.
Scenario #1 (Modified Two-Tier System – High School and Junior High Students on same buses)
7:40 am – 2:25 pm – Elementary
8:25 am – 3:30 pm – High School (includes a reduction of 10 minutes in the school day)
8:40 am – 3:45 pm – Junior High (includes a reduction of 10 minutes in the school day)
Scenario #2 (Three-Tier System)
7:15 am – 2:15 pm – High School (includes a reduction of 15 minutes in the school day)
8:00 am – 3:00 pm – Junior High (includes a reduction of 15 minutes in the school day)
9:00 am – 3:45 pm – Elementary
Why is a change necessary?
Unit 5 is currently running a $1.3 million structural deficit in its Transportation Fund. To cover that cost, we are using reserves. Once reserves are depleted, the District would have to look to other funds (e.g. Education, Operations and Maintenance, etc.,) potentially leaving shortfalls in those areas.
Why is Unit 5 running a deficit in Transportation?
Unit 5 has a $1.3 million structural deficit in the Transportation Fund because the state is only funding schools at about 70 percent of what we should receive. This shortfall from the state has occurred for the past seven years. Last school year, that 30 percent difference totaled $1.48 million. Over the course of seven years the amount owed to Unit 5 from the state for Transportation totals $8.35 million.
How could a change in start times save money?
To operate efficiently and use the fewest number of buses, Unit 5 needs at least 45 minutes between each tier (high school, junior high and elementary). Our current schedule does not provide that time gap and as a result we are using a larger number of buses, which costs the District more money. Even with adding additional buses, we have buses dropping off and picking up students late, both to and from school. For example, we had a bus picking up at one of our elementary schools at least 20 minutes late each day. We were able to reduce that time, only by making another bus run late.
Why does moving elementary first help save money?
Elementary students require the largest number of buses and the schools are spread throughout the District boundaries. Once the elementary students are dropped off, the buses will then spread throughout the District meaning they are closer to junior high/high school bus stops making routing more efficient.
How do you decide who receives bus transportation?
All Students who live 1.5 miles from school are legally provided free transportation. Students who live less than 1.5 miles from school and have a legally designated hazard stop also receive free transportation, as do some special education students living less than 1.5 miles from school.
Why are you proposing changing the length of the secondary school day?
Currently, high school and junior high schools are each 7 hours and 15 minutes long, while elementary day is 6 hours and 45 minutes. The ½ hour difference in length of day makes it difficult to build a bus schedule that allows 45 minutes between each tier, at the start and end of the school day. We are considering shortening the high school and junior high day by 10-15 minutes (depending on the scenario) to help make that easier.
What will happen to 5th grade music if the elementary start time is changed?
Fifth grade students currently ride the junior high school bus for band and orchestra prior to the start of their school day. If the elementary schools have an earlier start time, those 5th grade students would be transported to the junior high schools at the end of their school day and would then ride the junior high bus home.
Why can’t everyone start school at the same time?
Having a one-tier busing system would require more than doubling our fleet of buses as well as the number of drivers who would be needed. Hiring that many new drivers would be challenging, not to mention cost prohibitive. The District would also need to purchase or lease additional buses at a significant cost.
With the later school start time for junior high and high school, won’t kids just stay up later at night?
Research does not support that. The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement findings ran counter to the fears and expectations that a later start would result in students staying awake an hour later on school nights. Students included in the study reported getting an extra hour of sleep each night even after four years into the school start time change.
Most of the research and media attention is focused on the benefits for secondary students. What are the benefits for the elementary students?
Research shows that elementary students are biologically predisposed to earlier bedtimes and earlier wake-up times. Many younger students are already in a daycare setting prior to the start of school. They are already focused, engaged and ready for learning at this time of day. While most of the research has centered on secondary students, the research around elementary-aged students has shown no ill effects.
Is it possible with an earlier start time for elementary students that some students will be waiting for the bus in the dark in the winter?
It is possible but unlikely. The earliest elementary pickup time will be about 7 a.m. Our students in many rural areas, which often have the longest routes, are picked up at their homes. Currently, some elementary students are dropped off after dusk, and an earlier start time would alleviate that issue.
Why did Unit 5 do a survey?
Unit 5 wanted to gather input from parents, students and staff members about the proposed start times and transportation changes. More than 6,000 people participated. These results have been reviewed and are playing an important role in the decision making process. The survey showed that no matter what is decided, there is no way to please everyone. And, while we recognize change is difficult, ultimately we must be fiscally responsible and make decisions that are best for students.
Our older kids watch our younger ones after school. How are families supposed to adjust for this?
While we know every family situation is different, we hope this will give families enough time to make necessary adjustments. Local day care facilities have extended hours in the morning and evening, and we have childcare programs operating in every elementary school. There are some assistance programs available for low-income families. The decision the Board will make will always focus on what is in the best interest of all students as a whole.
Since junior high and high school students will get out of school later, will my child miss class time if they are in an event that begins late in the afternoon?
Yes. Some students already miss a portion of the school day and students are responsible for getting their school work completed. However, the time most students will miss is minimal. Students who participate in extracurricular activities must maintain passing grades in order to continue to participate.
What about students who work after school?
Their hours will have to change or they will have to work later into the evening. The District must make a decision on the school start times based on educational research and being fiscally responsible. Unit 5 will work to communicate any changes to area businesses that employ our students.
Who has been involved with this process?
A strategic planning group has been studying transportation cost-saving measures since October. This group was open to all parents, students, staff, and community members. The recommendations from that group, along with the survey results was then reviewed by a smaller group, including teachers, principals, District administrators, community members and students.
When will the Board of Education make a decision?
Unit 5 administrators, teachers and parents will give a presentation on this proposal at the Feb. 24 Board meeting at 7 p.m. at Parkside Junior High School. A formal proposal is expected at the March 9 meeting and a final decision is expected before Spring Break so we can give families sufficient time to adjust to any changes.
What can parents do to help?
The State of Illinois has created this problem for Unit 5. If we were fully funded, we would not have to be taking these drastic measures of increasing route lengths and reducing buses. We need parents, staff and community members to contact legislators and say public education must be fully funded. Contact information for local and state elected officials is available at www.unit5.org.