Seattle Public Schools is contemplating a shift to three separate school start times. This rushed proposal is meeting stiff resistance. (Photo: Seattle Dept of Transportation)

Update: After this article was published, the agenda for the May 4 school board meeting was updated to remove the changes to bell times and bus schedules, as well as the amendment that would have stripped the board of its power to make the final decision about bell times. The board is expected to take up the issue at a future meeting, so contacting them is still urgent.

A new proposal from Seattle Public Schools to return to a three-tiered system for bell times and bus service, with some schools starting as early as 7:30am, would cause major upheaval across the city and produce significant impacts on students, families, teachers — and our city’s transportation system.

The change is proving to be controversial, as it would reverse a 2017 decision made by the school board to change school bell times to better reflect research regarding student health. According to many parents, it would also be an impediment to their ability to get to work, to get students to before and after school programs, and could have potentially devastating effects on child care programs. It could also spark a significant increase in the number of parents driving their kids to school, especially in winter mornings, where kids would otherwise have to wait for a bus as early as 6:15am, as well as lead to lost or disrupted sleep among young kids.

It’s a proposal that centers the needs of a private bus company and district administrators instead of students themselves, and is being moved forward without much in the way of research or community engagement. Yet the school board is slated to vote on the plan at their meeting today, just two weeks after initially proposing the change. They are also going to vote on an amendment that would take away the board’s power to make the final decision on school bell times. 

Community members and several school board directors are mobilizing to stop this proposal. More than 1,000 parents have signed a petition opposing it. Ahead of tonight’s vote, this article aims to provide an overview of the issue and some possible solutions that could avoid widespread disruptions while helping support school bus service in Seattle.

Undoing a Landmark Change That Met Student Needs

In 2015, a parent task force came up with recommendations regarding bell times that led to the current two-tier system. Their research demonstrated that the three-tier system wasn’t meeting student needs, and flew in the face of best practices for student health. Parents also reported that the system often made buses late, and left few buses available during the day for field trips.

Following the lead of medical professionals, the task force recommended that the district move elementary school start times to 8:00am, and high school start times to 8:45am. The idea was that teens, who often need to sleep in later, should start school later than younger kids, who are often able to wake up a bit earlier than older kids.

SPS staff fought this task force and worked against their recommendations. During 2015, SPS staff would not offer that two-tiered option to parents in community meetings or surveys. It took until 2017 for the school board to overrule the staff and adopt the two-tier system. The City of Seattle helped by kicking in $2.3 million to help make the change happen.

Since 2017, bell times have remained stable at Seattle Public Schools, and the district received plaudits from across the country for their decision to put student health and outcomes first when creating bell time schedules.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced Seattle Public Schools to close campuses and move to remote instruction for over a year. While public health professionals still debate whether the long closure was necessary, there is general agreement that the closure successfully limited the spread of the pandemic and saved lives while also causing major upheaval for students.

Pediatric and public health experts believe the pandemic disruptions have led to significant student mental health needs, many of which continue to go unmet. 

The pandemic has also exacerbated a shortage of teachers and of bus drivers, leading the district to scale back bus service during the 2021-2022 school year. The district chose to make these cuts with an eye toward racial equity. An analysis of SPS transportation data shows that only 27 schools are missing bus routes, and nine schools, located mostly in Ballard, Magnolia, Queen Anne, and Green Lake, make up 63% of the missing routes. Only two schools, Cascadia and Salmon Bay, are missing more than two bus routes. 

It is against this backdrop that SPS now proposes to cause another disruption for students, without any apparent regard for the well-being of students and families.

A Massive Change — But Without Supporting Evidence

SPS’s plan would return to a three-tier system this fall. Most elementary schools would start at 7:30am, a shift of as much as 90 minutes earlier for some campuses. Most high schools would now start at 8:30am. This would upend the careful balance reached in 2017 with school start times, as high schools would start so late that some after-school programs, such as sports, might no longer be feasible.

In order to get elementary students to school by 7:30am, some students would need to be at their stops at or before 6:30 in the morning. In cold, dark winter months, many parents who currently choose a bus would instead be likely to drive their child to school. It would also cause sleep disruptions to students already struggling with the impact of the pandemic.

The district has been unable to explain how many students would be returned to bus service by their proposed change. It has not demonstrated how this would be any healthier for students than the current system or improve student outcomes. It has failed to engage families and take their needs into consideration when crafting this proposal.

SPS claims that a return to a three-tier model is necessary to due a bus driver shortage. However, they have failed to explain their reasoning in detail, and have not as of this writing shared detailed analysis showing why this is the only possible model to use. 

It is also unclear whether changing to a three-tier system will have any impact on bus driver recruitment and retention. The shortage of bus drivers is a national problem, with some states even calling out the National Guard in order to drive school buses. Public transit agencies here in Western Washington have also had problems finding and retaining drivers.

Further, as board member Lisa Rivera Smith points out in a public letter to the Seattle community, SPS has already taken steps to boost driver pay and help address the driver shortage. She argues that the board should delay changes to see if these efforts will succeed in recruiting more drivers in the fall.

SPS did not conduct any parent surveys or gather input from families, teachers, and child care providers before proposing a return to a three-tier bell times system. According to Rivera Smith, SPS staff did not respond to school board directors’ questions until just a few minutes before a crucial committee meeting on April 21.

To help fill the gap left by SPS’s failure to gather community input, parent Albert Wong crafted his own survey.

He reports 809 parents responded, and 87% of them said they would prefer to keep the current two-tier system, even if it meant scaled-back bus service continued for another year. Of those respondents whose school bus routes had been canceled this year, 76% said they preferred to continue without a bus rather than switch bell times.

In the written responses to the survey, several parents pointed out they would have to spend thousands of dollars to find child care, a burden that would fall inequitably on the city’s poorest families. Teachers spoke of their concerns that they wouldn’t be able to get care for their own students, which could exacerbate an already dire teacher shortage. Child care providers reported they might have to close due to the change in schedule, in part to due the likely loss of staff.

Alternative ideas have been proposed, including going to a staggered set of start times that would not be in three rigid tiers set one hour apart. Others have suggested that the district temporarily turn to an “opt-in” model, where students who are not guaranteed bus service under federal law are given the opportunity to opt in to riding the bus, making it easier to efficiently allocate fewer resources until more drivers are found.

In her open letter, Rivera Smith called on the district to continue with its present course of maintaining a two tier bus system. If the Superintendent pushes for a three-tier system, Rivera Smith argues instead for delayed implementation, rather than a sudden change: 

“I support the idea of delaying a year, first, to see how the new pay rate [for bus drivers] plays out, but also so that all our communities have a chance to plan for the best mitigations for their own situations — whether that means changing schools, planning for child care, or making employment decisions. A pause would also allow childcare providers the time to plan for a major adjustment to their operations, if a three-tier change does prove to be our best option,” Rivera Smith said.

The school bus crisis should be a problem for the state legislature to solve, with additional funding to provide every child with a realistic option to ride a bus to school at a time that maximizes their physical and mental health, as well as meets the needs of their families. In the meantime, SPS should adopt a “do no harm” approach and maintain the current two-tier system while spending 2022-2023 doing more research, planning, and family engagement to come up with better proposals in the event school bus driver recruitment and retention continue to be a problem.

The Board Must Decide

Given the controversy over the proposed bell time change, it would be reasonable to expect the school board to make the final decision over what the bell times should be for the upcoming school year, as they have in the past. But board member Liza Rankin submitted an amendment that would cede that power entirely to the Superintendent and been scheduled to be voted on at the May 4 board meeting before the about face after this article went to post.

State law directs school boards in Washington State to make decisions regarding student attendance schedules. SPS has retained its jurisdiction over bell times and bus times in part by adding an appendix for each of those items to the Transportation Service Standards. 

Rankin proposes to remove those appendices and, according to her proposal, “the Board will revise the Transportation Service Standards to remove appendices providing for annual exceptions for transportation and bus arrival/departure times and school start/times. Operational details formerly contained within these appendices will now be decided and communicated by the Superintendent or their designee.”

It seems hard to believe that the school board would actually try to give up their ability to make the final decision on something as important and controversial as bell times. Doing so would have the effect of not only ratifying the staff recommendation for a three-tier bell times model, it would also remove the ability of the public and their elected representatives to do anything about. It certainly seems as if this is the true intent behind Rankin’s proposal.

Board member Vivian Song Maritz strongly disagrees. In a post on her Facebook page, she wrote “We are elected to represent community. Right now, community is telling us not to abandon our responsibility here. I have received numerous contacts from community as such and I am voting accordingly.”

We elect school board members to set the policy for the district, to represent the public, and to conduct oversight over the operations of the district administration. It is essential to a democracy that the elected officials retain and exercise that power. 

When democracy is eroded or lost in public education, the results have been disastrous. Community members in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other big cities have fought hard to restore a democratically elected school board. We should learn from their experience and not allow the Seattle school board to cede their power over something as important as bell times.

This wouldn’t be the first time this year that the school board dismissed public concerns and plowed ahead with a major decision. In March, voices from the Seattle Education Association to the Seattle Times editorial board called on the school board to delay their decision on hiring a permanent superintendent. The school board rejected those calls and went ahead anyway. But board members acknowledged the process was flawed and pledged to do better at public engagement. If they cede their power over bell times and allow a flawed plan to go forward, they will be breaking that pledge.

Ultimately, it is not going to be possible for the district to come up with a good solution to the bell times and bus issue on such short notice. The best outcome would be for the school board to mandate that the current two-tier system remain in place for the 2022-2023 school year. The board should also direct the staff to go back and do a better job studying the issue, including research on best practices for student health, impact to family schedules and teacher needs, impact on before and after school programs, and above all, a much better job partnering with families and community members on gathering information and making a decision that meets the needs of as many people as possible.

If you’re interested in weighing in before tonight’s meeting, send an email to schoolboard@seattleschools.org and urge them to reject the Rankin amendment, ensure that the school board makes the final decision about school bell times, and that they retain the current two-tier system for the new school year while a better process is undertaken to address the issue.

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Article Author

Robert Cruickshank is a transit rider and progressive campaigner who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. From 2011 to 2013 he served as Senior Communications Advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.