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Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard school board to vote on new bell times amid looming bus driver shortage

The Howard Board of Education is expected to make a decision Feb. 23 on whether to adopt new bell times for the 2023-2024 school year as the school system continues to weigh the impact of the national bus driver shortage on implementation plans.

During the past 10 months, school staff and consulting firm Decision Support Group, LLC put in place a series of key “building blocks” to improve Howard schools’ transportation system to facilitate school start time adjustments. These blocks included finalizing proposed school-by-school bell times, transportation policy revisions and technology enhancements and issuing a request for proposals for new bus vendors in October.

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“Nothing has dissuaded us from our belief that the school start times can be implemented as proposed with the same or fewer number of buses than then was called for in the system before,” Tom Platt of Decision Support Group said during a presentation to the school board on Dec. 15.

Whether the board decides to proceed with new bell times, Howard school officials emphasized the county is still shifting to an opt-in busing model for next school year. There and will likely be an increase in transportation operating costs due to increased fuel, vehicle and labor expenses. The only new costs associated directly with school start times are the addition of six positions in the Office of Student Transportation, according to a report summarizing the revised system.

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“A lot of what the board has done, in our opinion, is things that are beneficial to the school system, regardless of school start times,” said Director of Student Transportation Brian Nevin. “It creates more efficiencies and a better overall productive transportation system.”

Officials say the major variable in the school system’s ability to change start times remains the ongoing bus driver shortage.

“There’s still some uncertainty around that because you just don’t know how that market is going to go,” said HCPSS Chief Operating Officer Scott Washington.

Stagnant pay, more enticing private-sector jobs and COVID-19-related health concerns have fueled the driver shortage and forced school districts around the country to eliminate routes and expand walk zones for students.

In Howard County, the school system relies on 23 bus contractors to service 478 routes. HCPSS had approximately 85 driver vacancies as of last week, according to school spokesperson Brian Bassett.

Despite the shortage, HCPSS has managed to maintain transportation service through the use of “double backs,” in which drivers pick up and drop off students on one route before returning to pick up a second group on an entirely different route.

While inconvenient, Nevin said the double-back system works because of the broad range of start times at Howard schools. All high schools begin at 7:25 a.m., but elementary start times range from 8:40 to 9:25 a.m. Middle schools start as early as 7:40 or as late as 8:25 a.m.

The final start time proposals the board is considering would group all schools into three tiers. Tier 1 (all 13 high schools, the Homewood Center and six middle schools) would begin the earliest, at 8 a.m. Tier 2 (14 middle schools and 14 elementary schools) would start classes at 8:40. Tier 3 (28 elementary schools) would have the latest bell times, beginning at 9:15.

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A second school bell times proposal would reverse Tier 1 and 3, meaning high schools would begin classes the latest. The board can choose to proceed with either proposal or maintain all current start times.

Before the board makes its final decision on Feb. 23, Nevin’s office will report back on driver shortage projections for next year and how many double-backs can be used if new bell times are adopted.

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Ahead of its final February vote on start time changes, the board will hold two public hearings and two public work sessions to receive community input on the proposals and make any necessary adjustments. The public hearings are scheduled for Jan. 17 and 26 at 7 p.m. and the work sessions for Jan. 19 and Feb. 15 at 4:30 p.m.

Community members must register to testify at a public hearing and can also submit written testimony. The public can attend work sessions in person or via livestream, but cannot participate in them.

“This [start time change] really does hinge on our driver ability availability at this point,” said board Chair Antonia Watts.


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