Four Wake County schools will see new start times this fall, but families at North Forest Pines Elementary successfully fought another attempt to change the Raleigh school’s bell schedule.
The Wake County school board approved Tuesday school bell schedule changes for the 2017-18 school year for Apex High, Wake Forest Middle and Apex and Heritage elementary schools. Transportation officials blamed the changes on not having enough school bus drivers to accommodate four new schools this fall and Apex High students relocating to a new site in Cary while their campus is rebuilt.
But a fifth school, North Forest Pines, will remain on the 7:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. schedule this fall. The board voted against a staff proposal to shift North Forest Pines 90 minutes later to a 9:15 a.m. start.
The new times for the four schools are:
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▪ Shift Apex High’s school day 15 minutes earlier, from 7:10 a.m. to 2:03 p.m
▪ Shift Apex Elementary 45 minutes later, from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.
▪ Shift Heritage Elementary in Wake Forest 15 minutes later, from 8:25 a.m. to 2:55 p.m.
▪ Shift Wake Forest Middle 10 minutes earlier, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.
“Those of you in this room can see the struggle each board member is having because none of these decisions are easy,” said school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler.
Families at the schools had objected to the changes, both on the district’s online discussion forum and directly in emails and calls to board members.
The board had been scheduled to vote on the new times on March 21, but waived a policy requiring that bell schedules be adopted by March 31.
Wake operates a three-tier bus system with most high schools starting at 7:25 a.m., most middle schools at 8:15 a.m and most elementary schools at 9:15 a.m. The staggered start times allow bus drivers to make as many as three runs in the morning and three more in the afternoon.
Wake’s early high school start time goes against recommendations from groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics to delay start times for middle schools and high schools to 8:30 a.m. or later because teenagers have a hard time falling asleep before 11 p.m.
Wake school officials have said they need high schools to be on the first tier because they have larger transportation areas than middle and elementary schools. Officials also say it would take significantly more drivers, at a time when Wake is facing a shortage, to get enough buses on the road to handle later high school start times.
Wake has 762 school buses on the road each day transporting more than 75,000 riders. Wake has 166 fewer buses on the road than three years ago, in large part because of difficulties recruiting drivers.
School transportation officials have proposed raising salaries for all drivers, including lifting the starting salary to $15 an hour. The board approved a one-time $750 bonus on Tuesday for drivers who stay on through June. In addition, Supt. Jim Merrill is including raises for bus drivers in his proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
School officials say they need to start Apex High 15 minutes earlier because it will take more time to transport students six miles further to their temporary home at Green Level High in Cary. The students will be at Green Level for two years while Apex High is rebuilt.
School officials have said it would require 12 more drivers to put extra buses on the road to keep Apex High at a 7:25 a.m. start.
Officials want to start Apex Elementary later to help the drivers who transport Apex High students have enough time to get to schools that start around 8:30 a.m.
Parents at Apex and North Forest Pines said the 9:15 a.m. start means working families will need to pay for before-school care. In addition, North Forest Pines families say it’s unsafe to start their school at the same time as the adjoining Forest Pines Elementary.
Transportation officials wanted Forest Pines and North Forest Pines on the same schedule so that students can share buses. This would have allowed Wake to free up six buses to serve the new North Wake College and Career Academy opening in August.
Transportation officials had tried to change North Forest Pines’ time to 9:15 a.m. for the 2015-16 school year, but the board rejected the change. It happened again Tuesday when the board voted 5-4 in favor of board member Roxie Cash’s request to leave North Forest Pines with a 7:45 a.m. start.
“I feel like I’ve been out there enough to have a lot of concern about the Forest Pines area and bringing in two large schools at the same time,” Cash said.
The board voted 8-1 against board member Don Agee’s request to drop the change at Heritage Elementary.
In the end, the board voted 7-2 in favor of the changes at the four schools. Agee and Bill Fletcher, who had objected to dropping North Forest Pines, were the dissenting votes.
Fletcher said removing individual schools can cause real problems for transportation officials trying to figure out how to get students to school on time.
“Our transportation staff over the last three years has developed a great deal of expertise and professionalism in assessing these things,” Fletcher said. “I really don’t believe they’ve brought us a plan that they do not believe will work.”