Three years into a debate that has divided district parents, the St. Paul school board decided Tuesday night to push back high school start times citywide — but not until two years down the road.

The proposal had vexed two incarnations of the board because a desire to give high school students more time to sleep would require 10,000-plus elementary school students to begin classes an hour earlier at 7:30 a.m. because of transportation issues.

To allow more time to explore ways to ease parental concerns, board members voted 5 to 2 Tuesday night to put off the switch to the 2019-20 school year, rather than 2018-19, the timeline that had been envisioned when they called for a new round of study on the subject in December.

The one-year delay also allows for the inclusion of any changes that might be called for under a new strategic plan that the school district will be developing in the coming months.

On Tuesday, the board also approved the hiring of a consultant, Greenway Strategy Group, based in Atlanta, to assist in that effort at a cost of $146,130.

Despite passing by a decisive margin, the vote actually proved to be a surprise, given that two board members — Zuki Ellis and Jeanelle Foster — spoke against the proposal before then voting in favor of it without explanation.

The district has wanted to push back secondary start times from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. to seize on national and local research showing that high school students can benefit emotionally and academically when they get more sleep.

Student performance on tests generally goes up and absences and tardiness decline when students can sleep later, the research indicates.

Concerns about the youngest

A major concern over the years about making such a switch has been about having the district's youngest students out at bus stops in the early morning hours, when some parents who are already working might be unable to accompany them.

In the winter, many of those school bus waits could occur in darkness.

The district has noted that other districts have seen neighbors and communities work together to keep a watchful eye on children. St. Paul also is considering working with police to have officers out in neighborhoods that have fewer streetlights.

Resolving child care issues will be another issue to be addressed. Previously, board members have raised questions about what such changes could mean for parents who need child care in the time slots that would shift.

The district plans to finalize the list of schools with new start times by October 2018.