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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will take another look at late bells, school hours

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will take another look at the longer elementary school day and a controversial late-dismissal schedule launched two years ago, Superintendent Heath Morrison said Monday.

His announcement of a new “School Time Task Force” follows the release of a consultant’s report that lauds CMS transportation planning but criticizes communication of the changes to school hours. The Council of the Great City Schools concluded that CMS used valid information in changing school start and dismissal times, known as bell schedules, to save money on busing in 2011.

“The district has had to make some very difficult decisions (in response to budget cuts) and, for the most part, should be commended for its efforts to respond to the needs and desires of the entire community,” the council’s report says. But it adds that lingering tension over bell schedules “could become a major distraction impeding other critically important work underway in the district.”

The council brought in transportation experts from Boston, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., to look at CMS issues connected with busing and bell schedules. It also made comparisons with districts across the country. CMS has agreed to pay up to $18,000 for the report; the final bill hasn’t been submitted.

CMS parents and teachers have raised an array of concerns, including whether the 7:15 a.m. start time for most high schools is too early, whether the 4:15p.m. dismissal time for some elementary and middle schools is too late and whether CMS erred in adding 45 minutes to the elementary school day. Changes made in 2011 were designed to save money by creating staggered schedules that let each bus serve up to four schools. Before that, all schools were out by 3:45 p.m.

Morrison said he supports the seven-hour school day for elementary students but would be willing to consider shortening the day by up to 15 minutes. And he said he’s willing to look at alternatives to the 9:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. schedule that has drawn complaints that it puts buses into afternoon rush-hour traffic and erodes evening time for homework, after-school activities and family time.

Susan Plaza, a CMS parent who has been leading the two-year push to shorten the elementary day and eliminate the late schedule, said she’s heartened by Monday’s developments. She said she’d have liked to see more specifics from the report but believes Morrison is sincere about working with dissatisfied parents and teachers.

“We’re thrilled that this study is continuing. The door isn’t closed yet,” she said. “Hopefully, we’re going to see something positive. We’re all reaching for that goal.”

Plaza’s group had questioned CMS calculations that indicate it would cost millions to get rid of the late bus schedule. The Council of the Great City Schools report confirmed those numbers, although it said CMS may have overstated costs for buying new buses. The report says separate proposals generated by parents contained questionable cost projections.

One of the challenges to changing the schedule is that adding buses would reduce the state’s efficiency rating for CMS, which would bring financial penalties. Morrison and Plaza both say the next steps could involve working with state officials to revise that calculation.

“All of our solutions involve more buses,” Plaza said.

The ongoing bell-schedule battle has spanned three superintendents, and the report raises questions about the way all three handled the issue. There was little community input into the initial decision, made under Superintendent Peter Gorman as part of a bigger package of budget cuts, it says. After Gorman resigned in 2011, “district administration” developed strategies to address concerns, but interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh did not consider them viable or bring them to the school board, the report says.

Morrison, hired in 2012, created a “Late Bell Schedule Committee,” which brought together staff and concerned community members. But that group lacked clear goals and responsibilities, the report says, leading to competing plans created by staff and by parents and teachers.

This time, Morrison said, CMS will get the community involvement right. The new task force will be similar to the 22-member group that just finished its work, with a mix of staff and community appointees. Meetings will be open to the public, Chief Communication Officer Kathryn Block said, but the schedule hasn’t been set yet. Morrison said there will also be surveys and town hall meetings.

“I don’t want to rush into recommendations that are going to solve one set of problems and create others,” he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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