Last Tuesday’s Hillsborough County School Board Meeting: Was Something Overlooked?

The Hillsborough County School Board voted last Tuesday to approve proposed bell time changes for 2018-2019. The primary reason for the change appears to be resolving late bus arrivals. There was no solution for buses chronically late at schools around the county for the 2017-2018 school year. The bell time schedule discussion did not address bus driver absenteeism, vacancies, lack of substitute drivers, or buses parked at home locations overnight (1, pp. 141, 150-152). These are reasons Gibson Consulting Group, Inc. (Gibson) notes for late buses in their Phase II Report, discussed previously here.

The following question was missing from the School Board Meeting discussion:

How many late buses result from each of the following causes?

1.   Absenteeism, lack of substitute drivers and vacancies,

2.   Buses parked at home or offsite locations overnight (“offsite” means not at a facility where buses are housed and maintained), and

3.   Short elapsed times.

While bell time changes were estimated to save $2M+ in transportation related spending, the changes place a burden on students and families that is not insignificant for many:

  • Some parents will have to use child care in the morning.
  • Elementary students will not benefit from the morning time in school (compared to current schedule) when they are fresh and rested; instead many will be in childcare.
  • Elementary students will be kept in school later in the day when many are more exhausted.
  • Elementary students may lose after-school enrichment opportunities for arts, music, or sports due to later release times.
  • Not all families want their elementary age children in school longer.
  • Elementary students have less time for homework and playtime.
  • Extra teachers will likely be needed in elementary schools and that cost may exceed the expected savings.
  • High School students start 15 minutes earlier.

Some of the above reasons and an analysis of the time changes are here: Analysis of HCPS Proposed 2018-2019 Bell Schedule.

There are benefits of the bell schedule change that were promoted but have not been well quantified. For example, there was no answer provided in the meeting to the question posed by School Board Member Melissa Snively regarding how many high school students worked that might benefit from the earlier release schedule.

HCPS has implied that the new bell schedule will address the late bus issue impacting over 10,000 students on a daily basis. What analysis, report, or study has been provided to help the public understand the root cause of late buses? Is the short elapsed time suspected to be the root cause or has it been proven to be the root cause? If it has been proven, some statistics around the problem locations would be very helpful.

Might there still be chronically late buses resulting from absenteeism, driver vacancies, and delays resulting from overnight parking? How severe and chronic is that problem? Where is that data?

Based on comments in last Tuesday’s HCPS Special Called Board Meeting, the school system is short around 170 bus drivers (after factoring in absenteeism). See webcast here at 1:57:00 (time marker) for that discussion.

In summary, with this decision, the Hillsborough County School District:

1.   Will inconvenience many students and families in the district (the end users of the system are students).

2.   Might spend more in additional teachers for elementary specials than the cost savings estimated from the bell time changes.

3.   Might not attain the full savings estimated for the bell time changes because not all elapsed times will be an hour or more, part of the recommendation to achieve the $2.4M in savings (1, p. 145).

4.   Did not discuss, during the meeting, how much the two reasons (discussed in a previous post) mentioned in the Gibson Phase II Report contribute to late buses, which appear to be significant contributors to late buses.

5.  Has not fixed late buses at ERT (Extended Reading Time) sites or other locations for 2017-2018.

6.   Did not provide substantial evidence at the meeting that the 2018-2019 bell schedule change will fix late buses at ERT and other locations when we know not all buses are late arriving at elementary schools.

7.   Has not explained to the public how other more creative options like different start times for impacted schools, or changing the order of school start times would not solve the problem.

8.   Was not prepared at the School Board Meeting last Tuesday to answer how many high school students arrive chronically late to school because of late buses. If buses are delivering high school students late, and high school starts first, then there is not an elapsed time in that scenario to fix and the buses would be late for a different reason.

9.  Presented a timeline that disputes the assertion that buses only have 27 minutes to deliver elementary students to class. It was explained in the HCPS School Board Meeting on Tuesday that most buses arrive at high schools early to drop off high school students at 7:00am in order to proceed onto their elementary school route. Assuming 7:10am is when they leave the high school; that is around 50 minutes, not 27, to arrive on time at elementary schools.

See video here at 1:09:55 (time marker) for an explanation around when buses actually drop off high school students. If they are effectively getting around 50 minutes, then why are 10,000+ students still chronically late? Currently, if the route really takes that long without delays attributable to other causes (e.g. absenteeism and vacancies) aside from those stochastic delays inherent in traffic, then there may need to be a different solution.

10.  Does not appear to have adequately benchmarked itself against top schools in the state during this analysis. Superintendent Eakins seems to ask for the public to provide an example of a school district in the state that has a high school start time that is last (of the three school types) – see 1:18:15 (time marker) in the webcast here. Taking a look at the top performing districts in the state; we only have to stop at the #1 performing district to see the following:
St Johns County Start and Dismissal
Source: http://www.stjohns.k12.fl.us/schools/hours/

11.  Did not quantify where the late bus problem is located with accuracy. The district indicated late buses occur all over the county and that the majority of those sites affected by chronically late buses are at ERT locations; also indicating the problem has something to do with extra time required in school at those locations.

What constitutes a majority? Are 40% concentrated at ERT locations, and the remainder spread around the district? Are 90% at ERT locations, with a small remainder spread around the district?

How do you fix a problem when you cannot or do not quantify the problem with more accuracy at a high level for decision makers or constituents?

HCPS indicates there are many reasons for the bell schedule change; though they emphasize the core of the decision is to increase the minutes between the start times at schools in order for buses to be able to drop off students on time. After a thorough review of available information it is not evident the new bell times resolve that problem.

Read on for some additional questions/concerns:

  • Susan Valdes’ concerns about the routing methodology for bus drivers in her district were interesting, what is driving the inefficiencies in driver assignments in that district (at 2:24:15 here)? That may be yet another late bus root cause – area drivers not being assigned to a nearby school because it is not their “area”, if that is a correct interpretation of her discussion.
  • Why does the district want every area and each school type (elementary, middle, high) on the same schedule, is that optimizing the network? Other smaller districts in the state vary their start times within school type.
  • Why are high school instructional hours now shorter than middle school? Is that what the district wants? It seems more prudent to make this change once with the desired and intended changes than to get it “functional” only to change it again later.
  • Why are middle school students experiencing late bus service in the afternoon (or morning) from school?

If there are 60 minutes and 75 minutes between elementary and middle school start and release times (and remember that is the desired 55-75 minutes range), then why are buses picking up approximately 1,609 middle school students late (discussed here at 2:13:45)?

It is no less important that middle school students are picked up late in the afternoons than if they missed school time. We are not only guided in life by what we learn in school.

There are operations research techniques for solving or optimizing complex problems like this bell scheduling issue.  Those techniques or approaches may not be easy, but they exist, have they been utilized?  What best practices have been studied?  The answers to the questions in these posts would provide great insight for the community.

 

¹Gibson Consulting Group, Inc., Phase II: Operational Efficiency Audit – Comprehensive Report for Hillsborough County Public Schools, https://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/docs/00/00/17/86/HCPSGibsonPhaseIIFinal_Report.pdf

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