Howard County Board of Education’s inability to find a solution just made things worse

After much principled hand-wringing at the December 19, 2017 meeting, the Howard County Board of Education voted 6-1 to keep current school start times, and rescinded their motion of February 23, 2017 that school days begin at 8 a.m. or later beginning with the 2018/19 school year.

This shocking vote means that for the foreseeable future, high school (HS) students will continue to start their day at 7:25 a.m. and middle schoolers (MS) as early as 7:40.

Their decision is an abject retreat from the Board’s oft-stated intention to change school start times in response to the problem of student sleep deprivation and the safety concerns raised by requiring children to leave for school in the dark.

Worse for public trust, it means the Board allowed the community to believe for ten months that an important and healthful change was on the horizon for our children, only to yank it away.

Board members seemed sincere in stating the high cost of moving the high and middle school start times to 8 a.m. or later caused them to back off.   Earlier start times at HS and MS will bump up against elementary school start times. New buses and drivers will be needed because all students at all levels will require transport at roughly the same time.  Four staff models presented at the meeting estimated costs ranging from $6.1 million to $9.1 million, most of it to buy new buses.

Board members were clearly surprised by this information and blanched at the prospect of finding the money amid a projected budget deficit of $23 million. They proceeded to collapse on the issue entirely.

Before I discuss the practical and more imaginative solutions our Board could have considered, let’s set the stage:

We ask a lot of our teenagers.  Homework takes up a great deal of outside class time, and extracurricular activities, important not only to social and skills development but also for college entrance applications, eat up even more hours.  The Board heard testimony that many students are up after midnight due to school-related work, yet must report for their first class at 7:25 a.m.

It’s obvious our young people are listless, inattentive, groggy and in no condition to absorb information at 7:25 a.m.  According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital and many other authorities, young people from age 13 to 18 should get between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep per night.

Studies show sleep deprivation can be devastating to health. According to Cal-Berkley neuroscience and psychology professor Matthew Walker, lack of sleep:

  • Reduces the brain’s ability to form new memories
  • Increases development of the toxic brain protein beta-amyloid,  associated with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Has a negative cardiovascular effect. Sleep is the ‘most wonderful form of blood pressure medication,’ lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

Matthews identifies other important facts such as:

  • Production of critical anticancer-fighting immune cells drops 70% after just one night of four to five hours of sleep.
  • The link between a lack of sleep and cancer is so strong the World Health Organization classifies nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen
  • Mental and physiological deterioration begins past 16 hours of being awake. After 19 or 20 hours, mental capacity is impaired to the level of someone who is legally drunk.

This type of information as well as reports from Howard County parents, teachers and students led the Board to make the important commitment to start school later, a commitment they have now abandoned.

So how could the Board have been more competent in keeping their promise?

First, The Board was clearly taken aback by the costs of the staff plans.  But why?  Didn’t the Board consider the fiscal requirements of meeting their February commitment?   Why didn’t they order staff updates during the course of 2017 that would have given them warning of tough decisions ahead and time to plan?

These basic Board responsibilities were overlooked. Instead the Board was shocked and unprepared for the staff report at the December meeting. The Board easily could have – and should have – sought updates and made contingency plans throughout the course of calendar 2017.

Next, the Board could have committed to finding the needed money immediately.  At the same December 19 meeting, staff told the board of $4.4 million in unencumbered funds from the Wilde Lake Middle School project, essentially surplus money for which there is no spending plan.  In fact, staff brought the matter to the Board to suggest moving some ($750K) of that funding to another project!  The $4.4 million from just one project represents 72 percent of the $6.15 million cost of moving HS and MS start times to 8 a.m.

It is clear that a diligent comb-through of the current budget could have identified the additional $1.7 million needed.  Why did the Board not seize this opportunity and direct staff to come back with more options?

The Board did not even discuss, let along express anguish or remorse, the decision to rescind their promise of February 2017 to adjust start times beginning next school year.  This causal cancellation of a ten-month long community promise should be a source of embarrassment.

As a concerned parent, engaged community member, and Board candidate, I take no pleasure in reporting these facts to you.  We should all regret that our Board was so asleep to opportunity and so deprived of imagination that it could not find a way to keep its promise and help our children.

I assure you that if elected, I will vigorously pursue this issue. I will insist the Board act to implement its community promise and aggressively engage with staff to responsibly and imaginatively find the funding to make later start times happen. Our students deserve no less.

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