Sunday, February 22, 2004

School start times still under debate

Private-school parents weighing in on heated issue

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ALEXANDRIA - If private-school parents have anything to say about it, the public schools here won't change their morning start times.

But should those parents have any say? Campbell County School District officials are wrestling with that question as they study what would be best for their 4,700 students.

The district's research has found that teenagers would benefit from school start times that are later than 7:30 a.m.. But pushing back classes at Campbell County middle and high school would also affect private school students - including those attending Catholic schools, because they ride the same school buses.

It's been that way for years.

Like many county governments in Northern Kentucky, the Campbell Fiscal Court pays the public school system about $422,480 a year to transport private students. It then requests reimbursement from the state.

This year, state funds fell short for many fiscal courts. Boone County, for instance, lost about $87,000 on its transportation of private-school students, County Administrator Jim Parsons says.

Campbell fell short by about $71,000. Its budget is stretched to the limit, but dropping the buses for parochial students isn't an option, Judge-Executive Steve Pendery says.

"The political pressure on us if we tried to do that would be extraordinary," he says.

Campbell school officials are well aware of the pressure.

Catholic education is strong here. Three of the public district's five school board members even graduated from parochial schools.

There are about 1,940 Catholic-school students within the district's boundaries. At two public forums this month, their parents were among the most vocal opponents of any change in start times.

They questioned the research on adolescent sleep deprivation, saying teens have always gotten up early for school. They complained about the chaos any change would bring to their morning routines.

Some even accused the district of "grasping at straws" to improve mediocre test scores at its secondary schools.

Some public-school parents have echoed those sentiments. But it's the comments of the parochial parents that have stood out.

Austin Erdman, an eighth-grader at Campbell County Middle School, attended the first forum and didn't like what he heard. He prefers the later start time.

"I was pretty angry. That one guy got up, and he's like, 'My kids are fortunate enough to go to parochial schools.' I thought it was pretty ignorant of him to say that," Austin said.

After his dad convinced him to soften his view, Austin said private-school parents pay taxes into the public system, so they have a right to weigh in.

Ed Rawe, who has children at St. Joseph School, says that as a tax-paying citizen, he doesn't want to see any kids get hurt by board decisions. He spoke in opposition to start-time changes at both public forums.

Should the school board listen to him?

"No, they shouldn't listen to me. Not just to me, but to the community," Rawe said. "And the community is overwhelmingly against it."

But it's tough to determine just how many of those naysayers are actually in the public system. School Board Chairman Chuck Eifert thinks most aren't.

Another board member, Mike Combs, says the approach by some Catholic parents has hurt their cause.

"If it's an issue of 'this is convenient for us and you shouldn't change because you're not as good as us, anyway,' that's insulting, and it's not to the point," Combs says.

The district has sought input from Catholic schools, even putting a parochial representative on its start-time committee. But the opinions of private-school parents won't decide the issue, Combs and Eifert say.

They'll be looking, they say, at whether teenagers in the public schools would benefit academically from an extra hour of sleep, and, if so, how to balance their needs against those of elementary youngsters.

The district's committee is still pondering those questions. It plans to make a recommendation to the board on March 22.


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