Depending on the campus, public school students in San Francisco could start class at as many as 19 different times before the pandemic.
The inconsistent bell schedules have led to an expensive web of bus routes dropping off and picking up students, running the district about $30 million a year in transportation costs.
But that could change as early as this fall, when the San Francisco Unified School District is planning to trim the range of bell schedules down to just three and save up to $4 million annually.
Orla O’Keeffe, SFUSD chief of transportation, said at a school board committee meeting Monday that busing became “massively expensive” as schools chose their own bell schedules.
“One of the reasons it’s costing so much is because we have like 19 different start times,” O’Keeffe said. “We used to have three start times.”
The changes come as the district faces a projected $112 million deficit by the 2022-2023 school year, with declining enrollment threatening to further reduce its revenues.
“We’re definitely in a budget crisis, this is going to help,” said school board member Faauuga Moliga on Monday. “I would rather us be able to change some of these systems rather than lay off staff.”
The district has already decided to cap busing costs at $29.2 million next year under a new contract with provider Zum. That figure could be further reduced by changes to the class schedules and bus routes.
The goal is to reduce school start times to three by this fall or by the 2022-2023 school year at the latest, according to O’Keeffe.
Pre-pandemic, the school day would begin at times between 7:40 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. If morning bell times were more strategic, SFUSD staff says it would need fewer buses to shuttle students to class, which would also help reduce congestion and emissions.
SFUSD spends about $4 million a year busing about 2,000 general education students, compared to the about $26 million annually on bus rides for 15,000 special education students. Another 13,000 district students use Muni, according to 2017-2018 school year data.
“The degree of savings that can be realized is directly related to the degree of change that’s reasonable for schools and families,” O’Keeffe said. “The order in which the bus has to pick up children matters, too. It also matters which school starts later than the other.”
The district must comply with Senate Bill 328 by fall 2022, requiring middle schools to start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
SFUSD also adopted a new elementary student assignment system in December to provide more predictability for families choosing schools, better integration, and add to transportation savings. The new system, to be implemented by the 2023-2024 school year, is based on zones, which are under development and may further alter transportation when school starts.
Staff plans to send out a survey to parents about new time preferences in mid-April for officials to review and decide on in May, and share the new schedules the same month.
The transportation team originally planned on sending out a survey on April 12 but didn’t want to add confusion or stress — as it’s the same day SFUSD will welcome its first students back to the physical classroom in more than a year.
Officials are currently assessing the best date to do so.