The contentious debate over changing school start times in Boston grew louder Thursday with civil rights groups voicing formal opposition, while school officials revealed a nearly $7 million deficit in transportation spending, adding further ammunition to parents who believe the new bell schedules are merely a cost-cutting measure.
Meanwhile, City Councilor Michael Flaherty jumped into the fray, sending a letter Thursday to Superintendent Tommy Chang, in which he derided the plan to change start times for younger students as “short-sighted and disrespectful.”
Flaherty joined at least five other city councilors who have called on school officials to immediately stop or delay the implementation of the new bell times for next fall — a request also made Thursday by the NAACP and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. The civil rights groups argued that the changes will harm families of color at higher rates.
“We know our parents of color are disproportionately likely to have lower-wage jobs that will make it harder for them to change schedules to meet the new demands of BPS, let alone pay more money for additional child care after school,” said Matt Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee.
Opposition to the new bell schedules centers on the potential negative consequences it could have on the school system’s youngest students. The changes call for having more than three dozen elementary and K-8 schools to start their day at 7:30 a.m. or earlier so that nearly all high schools can push back their start times to 8 a.m. or later.
School officials have justified the schedule flips saying mounting research shows that teenagers, who tend to go to bed later, would benefit from later start times by giving them a chance to sleep more, which in turn should improve their academic performance and mental health.
But research is scarce on what the effects of earlier start times, especially at 7:15 a.m., could have on younger students, while the resulting early afternoon dismissals could double a family’s after-school child-care costs.
The school district staggers school start times because officials contend it would be too costly to bus students to all the district’s 125 schools concurrently. One of their goals with the new bell schedules is to save on busing costs, which represent about 10 percent of the district’s $1 billion budget.
School officials showed no signs Thursday of backing down on changing school start times. “Boston Public Schools appreciates the outpouring of views on next year’s bell time changes, and is continuing to reflect on this feedback,” Daniel O’Brien, a school spokesman, said in a statement. “BPS believes that changing start and end times will not only help all students reach their potential, but that the new schedule will allow for improved parity in the distribution of bell times across the city.”
The transportation deficit came to light around midnight during a budget update at Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting, following more than four hours of public testimony from dozens of parents, students, teachers, and elected officials who railed against the bell schedule changes.
The district entered into this school year with the hope of saving $5 million in busing costs by teaming up with MIT researchers who developed a new algorithm for bus routes that took 50 buses off the road. Instead, spending is over budget by $6.6 million.
Officials blamed the increase on traffic. More elementary schools are dismissing at the height of rush hour — later than 4 p.m. — after the school system over the last three years extended the day by 40 minutes. The late afternoon dismissals have been unpopular with many families, prompting in part the move to earlier start times next fall.
Officials also chalked up the deficit to having more students with disabilities requiring pickups and dropoffs at their homes and more of these students being bused to specialized programs outside the city. “We may not achieve the total transportation savings this year, but we are laying the groundwork for better results and long-term savings,” said Eleanor Laurans, the system’s chief financial officer, in a memo to the School Committee.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh hinted earlier in the day about a potential busing deficit during a press conference, saying, “the costs of transportation are out of control, escalating every day.”
Jovani Fox, whose 5-year-old daughter attends kindergarten at Lee Academy Pilot School in Dorchester, said school officials are shifting budget woes onto thousands of families. The opening bell at her daughter’s school, Lee Academy, will ring at 7:15 a.m. next fall — instead of 9:30 a.m. — and students will get out at 1:15 p.m., leaving her to pay for after-school programming until 6 p.m. “They are trying to save money on transportation with our most vulnerable constituents — small children,” said Fox in a telephone interview Thursday night, noting that she walks or drives her daughter to school.
The civil rights groups in making their case seized upon data released by the School Department Wednesday night that showed dramatic increases in the percentage of students in all racial groups, including whites, who would be stuck with early morning start times, as early as 7:15.
According to that data, the portion of Hispanic students in kindergarten through Grade 6 attending schools starting before 8 a.m. would increase t0 48 percent next fall, up from 27 percent this year; blacks 44 percent, up from 31 percent this year; Asians 39 percent, up from 14 percent this year; and whites 49 percent, up from 10 percent this year.
Meanwhile, the percentage of all students at those grade levels who would be going to school at the time most desired by families in school surveys — between 8 and 9 a.m. — would decrease mostly by the double digits. “It is shameful that BPS turned an opportunity to do right by our high school students into a justification for unrelated cuts that harm our youngest children,” the civil rights groups wrote in their statement.