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National experts will review CMS school hours, busing schedules

Superintendent Heath Morrison is bringing in national experts this month to study Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ hours and bus schedules, a point of contention for more than two years.

Start and dismissal times, known as bell schedules, have been in the spotlight since CMS leaders revised hours for several schools and added 45 minutes to the elementary-school day to save money on busing in 2011. Those changes came with little public discussion or employee feedback, at a time when then-Superintendent Peter Gorman warned that drastic measures were needed to cope with budget cuts.

Morrison, who has been superintendent since July 2012, has asked the Council of the Great City Schools, an association of large urban school districts, to convene transportation officials from around the country to review the CMS system and make recommendations. The consultants will spend a day and a half in Charlotte later this month.

“I think it will be an opportunity to show parents and our employees that we are serious about this and not just giving lip service,” school board Chairman Mary McCray said Friday.

School hours and busing are linked because CMS staggers bell schedules to allow one bus to serve three or four schools, finishing runs for an early school and moving on to later ones. In 2011, Gorman added a new “late bell schedule,” with some elementary and middle schools opening at 9:15 a.m. and dismissing at 4:15 p.m.

At the same time, he expanded the elementary school day from 6 hours and 15 minutes to 7 hours. He said at the time it would help save money on transportation and provide an academic benefit to students. So far, CMS has presented no data on whether the longer day has had any effect.

Rushed and tired

Parents and teachers who don’t like the new schedule have spoken at several school board meetings and lobbied CMS staff and board members for change. They say the longer day is exhausting for students and teachers, who got no additional pay. Gorman and his top staff said at the time that the change wouldn’t force teachers to work longer, but would cut into planning time.

“Everybody’s tired. It’s just too long of a day,” said Theresa Connor, computer lab teacher at Myers Park Traditional Elementary, who is one of the teachers working with parents to get the school day shortened.

Opponents of the late schedule for elementary and middle schools say it puts buses into evening rush hour traffic and leaves students little time for homework, extracurricular activities and family. Some have suggested it would make more sense to flip the arrangement, which currently has high schools opening at 7:15 a.m. and dismissing at 2:15 p.m. Teens would benefit from sleeping later, they say, while the younger students could get home earlier.

McCray, who was elected to the school board after the bell-schedule changes were made, said she got a foretaste of the issues when she was an elementary school teacher. Several years ago, fifth-graders from southern elementary schools were temporarily assigned to Community House Middle School to relieve crowding while a new elementary school was built. That put those students on the seven-hour middle school schedule.

It did make for a long, tiring day, McCray said, especially when students had to wait 30 to 40 minutes after dismissal for buses to arrive from their earlier runs. On the plus side, she said, it allowed time to do both social studies and science lessons every day. With the shorter day, McCray said, those lessons generally alternated.

Cost of change

Morrison has met with concerned parents and teachers since he started work, and created a study group to look at options during the past year. While top CMS staffers regularly attended those meetings, they produced no recommended changes for 2013-14.

“They’ve put a lot of people to listen to us, but there was no actual attempt to try and find a solution,” said Susan Plaza, one of the parents who contends their group came up with plans to improve the bell schedules without costing CMS money.

During this spring’s budget talks, Morrison told the school board all the proposals would create upheaval and eventually cost millions of dollars, partly because of complex state efficiency formulas. Even plans that appear to save money during the first year would require spending more county money because the state would scale back its contribution, he said.

Plaza, Connor and others are skeptical of the CMS numbers. They are also frustrated that when they tried to survey teachers and parent leaders about the effect of the new schedule on teacher planning time last spring, CMS told schools not to participate.

McCray said she understands the concerns. The original decisions were “last-minute” and done without consulting teachers and families, she said.

“A lot of the parents (still) feel like they’re not getting honest answers,” she said. A study done by someone who has no connections to CMS should have more credibility, she said, and “if we can do it without cost, we will do it.”

The consultants will meet with the group that wants change.

Plaza said Morrison called her recently to tell her about the study. While she’s glad CMS is still working on the issue, Plaza said she has “no high hopes for a resolution with this group.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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