Leander ISD considers school start time changes amid traffic woes

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Leander ISD is considering changing when students start classes, due in part to the difficulty of navigating so much traffic around some of its schools in the mornings and evenings.

During a Leander Board of Trustees meeting Thursday night, it said it likely won’t make any changes until next semester at the earliest, but the majority of administrators, board members and others on a special committee to study the issue did recommend changing middle school start times.

The intersection of Ranch to Market Road 620 and Ranch to Market Road 2222 in northwest Austin is a particularly busy spot. Vandegrift High School and Four Points Middle School share land near the intersection and getting to and from can be a nightmare.

“Busy,” Jacqueline Daly said. “Always busy.”

Daly was in her car, stopped at a light at the intersection when KXAN spoke to her. Like car drivers headed to work, school bus drivers headed to campus often get stuck in the stop-and-go.

It can get so bad, Daly said, her kids used to be late for school when they rode the bus.

“Quite often at the start of the year. It took a good few weeks for the bus to get there in time,” she said. “And coming home in the evening would take about an hour.”

Her kids have aged out of Leander ISD schools, but the traffic hasn’t improved. A cyclist stopped at the same light said his kids get stuck on the bus, too.

“He would like to ride a bike to school, but there’s no way,” the cyclist said. “It’s impossible to ride a bike here on 2222.”

Construction projects on both roads promise to snarl movement even more. Leander ISD is also adding about 1,000 students (and their families) each year.

“The beautiful thing about living in a fast-growth area is people want to be here,” district spokesman Corey Ryan said. “But there’s also growth and construction that comes with that.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Leander ISD’s board of trustees heard a presentation from a committee studying possible changes to district bell schedules that may ease congestion around schools.

The committee, comprised of administrators, board members and others, has been looking into the issue for the last year. It’s already come up with some recommendations, including widening the gap between start times, especially between high school and middle school.

Right now, elementary schools start at 7:45 a.m. and release at 2:50 p.m. High schools start next, nearly an hour later, at 8:40 a.m., but the middle school bells rings just 15 minutes after that. Likewise, high schools and middle schools release 20 minutes apart in the afternoons.

“A high school bus might get stuck in the traffic of middle school parents leaving or vice versa,” Ryan said.

That’s one reason the committee recommended having at least a 40-minute gap between start times, and most members recommended changing middle school start times.

The board hasn’t made any decisions; in fact, Ryan said, Thursday more or less kicks off a second round of studying the issue, so any changes would kick in next school year at the earliest.

Traffic is not the only consideration. “There’s a give and take in all of this, and balancing it, and our focus is on instructional time being the core thing that we want to make sure that we have a good answer for,” Ryan said.

Changing the bell schedules would also mean bus schedules could be more efficient. Drivers typically run two routes a day now, one for elementary school and one for either middle or high school. With more time between pick-ups and drop-offs, they could drive three routes a day, bringing many drivers closer to a 40-hour work week.

Like many districts, Leander ISD perpetually struggles to hire enough drivers for the school year, so making the job full-time instead of a part-time split-shift option, Ryan said, “might make the position more enticing.”

There are also drawbacks to consider, which is part of the committee’s process moving forward. One potential side effect is the impact on after-school activities and sports at both middle and high school levels.

The committee will gather more feedback and information and should come up with some final recommendations in the coming months.

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