The debate over school start times isn’t a new one (“Best thing we can do for teens? Later school starts,” April 15). Health benefits for students initiated the conversation, and we’re familiar with the research regarding teenage circadian rhythms being different from most people’s. However, there are additional considerations that must be addressed when contemplating a statewide change.

A bill in the Minnesota Senate (SF 2938) would mandate school start times for middle and high school students. The bill would require a school board to not start school before 8:30 a.m. for secondary schools and buses to not begin pickup before 7 a.m. for elementary students.

As school board members in Mahtomedi and Robbinsdale, we have shared our experience with legislators.

While many applaud the sentiment behind the call for later start times in theory, one must consider the domino effect that occurs within school districts. We urged legislators to leave responsibility with school districts to determine start times for their schools. Local control allows decisions to be made by those closest to the issue and who know their communities best.

As locally elected officials, we understand the value of a later start time for older students. In 2005, the Mahtomedi school board moved its high school start time from 7:30 to 8 a.m. If this new proposal becomes law, the district would be forced to once again disrupt all of its students and families to be in compliance.

The same would be true for other districts that have initiated later start times and landed on 8:15 or 8:20 a.m. as the best solution. Robbinsdale is currently exploring options by looking at the research as well as other districts’ practices.

Both districts understand that as a part of any study, it is imperative to engage students, families and staff in the conversation to reach the best overall decision. The health benefits are understood, and now districts must grapple with the other issues associated with a change of this magnitude.

One of the biggest challenges, logistically and financially speaking, is student transportation structures. These can differ for each district and shouldn’t be painted with a broad brush. Districts have had to plan for efficiencies and thus have implemented multitiered busing schedules. For example, Mahtomedi has a two-tiered busing system, Robbinsdale has a three-tiered schedule and some districts have more.

On the other side of the coin, rural Minnesota has geographical constraints that require longer bus rides that wouldn’t allow rural districts to comply with the times mandated. Magnet schools and specialty programs add additional layers of complexity to the start-time equation.

Flattening a district’s transportation system would require the purchase of more buses and the hiring of additional drivers. At a time when there is a serious lack of school bus drivers, adding routes would only add financial burdens.

There are several additional components that must be considered before passing a new state mandate. It is important to consider the balance between the sleep impact on teenagers with concerns about the safety and security of elementary students waiting for buses early in the morning during the late fall and winter months. We must point out that there aren’t many studies on start times for elementary-age students.

A third point is students who want or need to work. Work for many students is a reality and often a necessity.

And, finally, day care and after-school care would be significantly affected, leaving families having to scramble to adjust schedules to the new start-time mandate.

Minnesota has over 2,000 locally elected school board members, whose responsibility it is to understand and respond to issues that impact school districts. As two of those school board members, we would again emphasize the importance of local decisionmaking.

School start times have proved to be a divisive and complicated topic in districts that have already examined the issue. Local school boards are in the best position to engage communities and have the necessary conversations to make decisions in the best interest of the local community.

 

Patsy Green is a member of the Robbinsdale Area Schools school board. Kevin Donovan is a member of the Mahtomedi Public Schools school board.