By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board is expected Tuesday to approve a new bell schedule for the coming academic year to resolve the ongoing late arrival and drop-off of over 10,000 students who ride the bus.

The board is contemplating a proposal with uniform bell times for each school level with high schoolers beginning class first, followed by elementary and then junior high students.

“We’ve been blaming our bus drivers for 10 years when it’s our structure that is causing the problem,” said board member Jill Humpherys at last week’s work study session. “Changing start times, that’s controversial because it has a very personal impact to everyone in the district.”

The district’s bell-time structure is not only financially inefficient but results in an unprecedented 66 percent of all elementary buses running late almost every day, according to a district-hired consultant.

The current bell schedule doesn’t allow drivers the time to pick up or drop off the maximum number of students on time and move on to the next school.

The board was presented with two options in March. Both pared down the nine bell times for schools to three.

“Nine bell times for 40 schools is unprecedented,” said consultant Paul Novak last week. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The school district polled parents and staff during spring break on the proposals and an overwhelming number liked Option 2, which put elementary school bell times between that of high schools and junior highs. In Option 1, elementary schools were first, followed by high schools and then junior highs.

Of the 23,156 households in the district, 10,370 responded to the survey with 64 percent in support of Option 2, according to Dawn Antestenis, district spokeswoman.

She said each household was asked to provide one response to the survey but there was no guarantee that happened.

Of the district’s 4,326 employees, 2,108 responded, and of that 60 percent preferred Option 2, Antestenis said.

A majority of those polled didn’t leave comments, but the ones who did ran on key themes.

Those themes included comments that older students should be released first so they can take care of their younger siblings; a later release time for junior high students would impact after-school activities and affect the ability to look after younger siblings; and elementary students shouldn’t have to get up early and be out at bus stops before 7 a.m., according to Antestenis.

People also commented that they liked the current start and end times.

Board members also addressed some of the questions the public put in their comments – such as why a change is being considered and why the district spent money on a consultant.

Board President Reed Carr, who has a background in transportation with a Fortune 100 company, said it was cheaper for the district to hire a consultant for a one-time cost to come up with a solution to the district’s bus problem than to hire an employee, which would incur an ongoing expense.

“I’ve been there, made these decisions,” he said. “You have an external expert because it’s less expensive in the long run.”

Humpherys said some respondents suggested that the district should change school boundaries and questioned the need to change bell times.

She said everything changes and used Gilbert and traffic patterns as examples.

“We are at a good place to address it,” she said. “If we are not changing, we are in a static situation and falling behind. The status quo is not quite good enough.”

She said when 66 percent of the buses are late and 30 percent of students ride the bus, it disrupts learning for everyone when they arrive late to school.

The bell times for Option 2 presented to the public, however, have now been slightly changed due to Senate Bill 1022, which the governor signed into law on April 1, according to Novak

The legislation allows districts to drop the instructional hours for junior high students to 890 hours from 1,000 hours, which allowed for junior high schools to start 5 minutes earlier and end 10 minutes earlier under the revised Option 2, Novak said.

The start and end times for high school and elementary vary by 5 minutes from the original Option 2 and is now Option 2.1.

Carr asked if it was possible for schools that didn’t have busing to have their own bell schedule.

Novak recommended against that, saying all schools have special-needs buses. About 1,000 students take those buses.

“I would caution allowing schools to pick their own start times because of the special-needs implication,” he said.

Carr said staggering the start times of the district’s 20 elementary schools seems to make more sense because they wouldn’t be competing at the same time for buses.

Novak said staggering the start time would put elementary school bell times in conflict with that of junior high’s and high school’s.

Board member Lori Wood said she looked at the schedules of surrounding districts, including Chandler and Mesa. She said their high schools start first, with elementary in the middle and junior high last. She asked why junior high can’t be in the middle as it is currently in the district.

Novak said it can be in the middle but district senior administrators suggested it come last.

He said parents tell them that by the time elementary school students take the bus, there is no one at home to see them off. Older siblings have already left and so have parents for work, he added.

Sandwiching the elementary bell schedule between high school and junior high solves that problem, he said.

The junior high sibling is home to see the younger sibling off and the high school sibling is at home to receive the elementary student after school, Novak said.

“Are you confident that if we do 2.1, it will allow us to improve reliability and efficiency?” Wood asked.

Novak responded the option would turn the district’s transportation system from high-cost and low-performance to low-cost and high-performance.

Under the proposal, the overall number of buses, routes and bus drivers needed would be reduced.