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 overhauling its schedule, 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 long run into disagreements 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 researched the 40 largest suburban school systems in the country, 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 critics have used against the switch in the past.
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."