Will 7:20 a.m. really save $1.3 million?

COLUMBIA, 1/13/13 (Beat Byte) -- As Columbia Public Schools pays for the most expensive building boom in district history -- over $100 million and counting -- a $1.3 million annual cost savings may be driving a district committee to abandon talk of later start times for high school students based on scientific studies that longer sleep yields better learning.

"Vast amount of research out there about how later start times are good for teenagers -- academically, behaviorally and physically -- and this committee says sooner? It's about the money," said secondary education behavioral specialist Mindy Bloom.
Some parents even suspect the district is looking for ways to cope with bad infrastructure around Battle High, where two-lane roads still dominate a rural landscape and traffic safety has dominated city and county budget discussions. Earlier high school start times mean less traffic for buses on narrow roads.

Early discussions about the start-time switch focused on cost savings from school bus transportation under a so-called "three-tiered" system with various grades starting and ending class at three different times.
"Superintendent Chris Belcher focused on the financial angle. He showed the board a chart of transportation funding from the state since 2007," the Columbia Daily Tribune reported last month.
Start time proposals initially estimated a $1.3 million savings, presumably from fuel and bus-related costs, a figure repeated in Board discussions and news stories. Then Board members started walking it back.
"As far as cost savings, previously estimated to be $1.3 million, committee chairwoman Christine King said that may or may not happen," the Trib reported in November.

"Discussions were initially on cost savings. As we moved forward, it was about the raising of efficiencies as well as a hope that perhaps we'll have a positive fiscal impact," school board member Helen Wade said in December. "We're being very careful not to say 'we'll save a whole bunch of money doing it this way.' It's much more than that."
But the ongoing discussion of cost savings in a district that constantly complains about money has parents wondering if cost isn't what the controversy is all about.

"This is a decision about child safety, development and academic success," Rachel B. wrote in an email chain of angry parents. "It is outrageous that those considerations be trumped by financial considerations."

Indeed, the $1.3 million cost savings came up again this month with more certainty. After members of a committee looking at the new start times questioned "why the group was abandoning the evidence of a sleep study" that showed high school students learn better with more shut eye, deputy superintendent Nick Boren had an answer.
"Boren projected cost savings to be about $500,000, but he said they could ultimately be in the range of $1 million to $1.3 million," the Tribune reported January 9.