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Consultant Next Step in Start Time Discussion

Ad-hoc Fairfax County school board committee will present recommendations in July on what a firm should offer the system.

After 14 years of discussion and two formal attempts to address the issue on its own, the Fairfax County school board will look to a consultant to help it move forward on a resolution to start the system's high school schools after 8 a.m.

Chairman Janie Strauss (Dranesville) appointed a four-member ad-hoc committee Monday to better articulate the system's values in defining what the board is comfortable exploring and which issues are non-negotiable.

Members Sandy Evans (Mason), Ryan McElveen (At-large), Patty Reed (Providence) and Ted Velkoff (At-large) will deliver recommendations to the board at a July work session, at which point the board will be able to develop a request for proposal to hire an outside consultant, Strauss said.

While officials and stakeholders have on how best to implement later start times at Fairfax County high schools — suggestions on Monday alone ranged from public-private partnerships to a small pilot of later start times within the system — most school board members agreed they wanted to avoid ending in the same place they've often landed over the past 14 years: with limited options and no clear path on how to move forward.

"I don't think we can look at this and throw our hands up … It’s not acceptable to me and I'm not going to rest on that," Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon) said.

The complexity of reworking the transportation system of a district so large has been attempted, and left on the table, by a firm before, said Dean Tistadt, the system's chief operating officer and head of facilities and transportation services. FCPS went to market last year for a bus system optimization, but the selected consultants "couldn’t make it work. They walked away," he said.

After the board passed its most recent resolution in April, staff r identifying 10 that were most comparable to Fairfax County, among them, neighboring Loudoun County.

It also studied, by the board's request, the Arlington and Minneapolis school districts.

A common theme of districts that successfully run or have switched to later start time models is a compressed morning bus schedule, Tistadt said.

The starting bells for the county’s 194 schools span two hours, Tistadt said, from 7:20 to 9:20 a.m.; most other systems that have achieved later schedules have cut that span to an hour and 10 minutes — in the case of Loudoun, between 7:50 and 9 a.m., he said.

Shortening that span in Fairfax — which uses 1,081 buses to transport about 130,000 students each day — would likely raise costs and increase the number of schools affected, two of the biggest arguments

Still, working through the issue is more than just a transportation problem, Evans said.

"I think it's a mistake if we see it only as a transportation [issue]," Evans said. "We need to be doing this  … for health reasons, for academic achievement, for graduation rates."

It's also about taking deep community concerns, which have blocked proposals before, and working through them to find better solutions.

"We’ve all gotten emails from people that aren’t saying 'no,' they’re saying 'hell no' to us and are just amazed that we would spend any money going down this route when we already had this dialogue and I think we need to respect that part of the community and hear what they have to say," Smith said.

Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) pointed to Arlington Public Schools, which presented three options for a schedule shift and used community input to create an "Option Four," which it implemented in 2000.

Board members offered a range of issues consultants could consider, including:

Transportation Costs, Schedule and Level of Disruption. Some suggested getting Board of Supervisors' support to help shoulder additional costs. But Ilryong Moon (At-large) recalled how the supervisors committeed to full-day kindergarten as a priority several years ago, but left the school board on its own to figure out how to implement and fund it.

Transportation Optimization, Efficiency and Public/Private Partnerships: Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) suggested reaching out to a national organization — such as Fedex or UPS — which may have more technology available.

Change Management: How to better engage the public, work through solutions to their concerns and incorporate them into final options.

"How much change can people swallow and how do you help people through that process?" Superintendent Jack Dale said.

Core Values: Determine some board principles on transportation, including travel times, walking distances and how much of its budget should go toward transportation.

"Out of the Box" options: Exploring "8th period," distance and online learning and other "unusual solutions" to scheduling problems.

The ad-hoc committee will make recommendations on which of those paths, or offer others, a consultant should follow.

"This isn't about the fact that we can't achieve it or that some part of the community is going to lose out … you don't have winners and losers," McLaughlin (Braddock) said. "I think it's important we protect all of the different parties involved."

Greg Brandon June 12, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Tisdadt says he isn't adverse to changing the bell schedule but that he hasn't been able to figure it out. I think we should turn-over the challenge of finding the best way to accomplish this important goal to university professors and their students. This is an operations research routing problem. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Routing.) The school board should create a competition open to undergraduate and graduate student groups to find the best way to achieve the desired outcome. Winning entry gets $10,000. This would certainly be cheaper than paying consultants and would be less susceptible to meddling from FCPS staff.
Sonia Baker June 19, 2012 at 10:14 AM
What will this consultant find that is different than before. This is ludicrous and I would like to know if they are hiring the same consultant. They are hiring a consultant to assuage the sleep coalition; so that when fairfax county votes it down they can still be re-elected. Make the decision already! We need this money and to get rid of a useless board members.
Sonia Baker June 19, 2012 at 10:17 AM
Thank you!!! I am shocked that the media is not focused on the money that the board will be wasting on a repeat study. How can we in good conscience hire outside consultants.
T Ailshire June 19, 2012 at 01:13 PM
I went to high school (as did most readers here, I expect) and functioned perfectly well at 7:20. Of course, I kept my after-school activities reasonable, didn't try to do everything, did homework when- and wherever I needed to, didn't spent 2 hours worrying about makeup and hairstyles, and was prepared for years and years of having to be to work at 7:30.
Kelly July 15, 2012 at 09:22 AM
I would like to echo what Marc Corolla has proposed. It has already been recognized that Fairfax County is large and diverse enough to have representatives elected from different areas so why not acknowledge that there are certain issues - facilities, traffic etc. that require different solutions for schools in different regions. No student should have to ride a bus 12 miles to get to school. I grew up outside of Fairfax County and have never understood why all the schools don't start at the same time. So it is time to think outside the box on this issue and get some fresh ideas from heads that don't have a vested interest. Consider that if schools were regionalized, more kids could walk to their neighbourhood schools at a reasonable hour cutting way back on the need for buses which would improve the health of the kids, boost our communities and save thousands of dollars. It is time to rethink some of the ideas that have us stuck on this issue.

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