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This year, parents in San Diego Unified have amped up their calls to let children sleep. Parents told the school board in October that schools’ early start times have led to sleep-deprived teenagers. They asked the board to consider later start times for middle and high schools.

Teenagers typically go to bed and wake later than younger students. But they still need eight to 9.5 hours of sleep each night. Currently, 15 of the 16 comprehensive district high schools start the school day around 7:30 a.m. – meaning most high schools in San Diego start a full hour earlier than experts recommend. Research suggests that starting the school day even an hour later would lead to more well-rested students.

The conversation echoed calls made elsewhere in California this year. In September, lawmakers rejected a bill to mandate middle and high schools start no later than 8:30 a.m. The bill’s author, Sen. Anthony Portantino, said he would bring it back in January 2018.

In October, San Diego Unified trustee John Lee Evans asked district staffers to provide parents with information on how they can organize a push for later start times at the neighborhood level. If there’s consensus on the proposed changes, the school board would then consider making changes at the cluster level, referring to the geographic clusters of schools within the school district.

But even if parents, school board members and educators all want later starts to the school day, they’re going to come against one major hurdle: a barebones transportation department the district continues to trim.

School start times are dependent in large part on busing schedules. To get kids from various neighborhoods to schools on time, the district staggers start times so buses can make two to three trips each morning, dropping off kids and picking up new ones.

That the district has slashed busing by nearly half in just the past seven years makes this much harder. In 2010-2011, the district ran 2,300 bus routes and transported 17,500 students daily. This year, it’s down to 1,439 routes moving 9,330 students a day.

Those trends mean fewer students have access to busing at all, even if they’re willing to pay the $500 the school district charges (families who qualify for free lunch are exempt). The cuts to busing also mean district staff members would have to find creative solutions to rearrange start times without hiring more bus drivers or adding more bus routes.

“It’s a complicated puzzle because we are not in any budget position any time soon to be spending extra money on transportation,” Evans said at October’s board meeting.

Rearranging morning bus schedules is only one piece of the puzzle. Later start times would also mean school days finish later – factoring in athletics and after school activities, some students might not wrap up the school day until well after dark.

The bigger question, however, is where the money for additional bus routes would come from. As schools grapple with the impact of last year’s $124 million budget cuts, the school board will face a projected shortfall of $59 million for next year.

Even outside of the concerns over bus fees (or the fact the district sends parents to a collections agency if they’re late to pay those fees), or questions about how to fairly implement school choice without transportation, the issue underscores how the need for adequate transportation impacts all students, not just those who ride the school bus.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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