Wheels got put on a proposal to change busing and school start-and-stop times in Walla Walla.

By unanimous vote, the Walla Walla School Board gave a green light Tuesday night to Superintendent Wade Smith in his quest to reconfigure school schedules and redraw district bus routes.

Smith first voiced the idea of moderately shifting school times in late February. He and Transportation Director John Griffith have been looking at ways to reduce transportation overlap and costs for some time. Changing school schedules will make busing more efficient and accessible for more students, plus, in some cases, it will better match the school and parents’ work schedules, Smith said last month.

That means aligning start times in all district elementary schools, pushing back middle and high school daily schedules, and filling in time gaps with before- and after-school programs.

Those changes would result in annual estimated savings of more than $400,000 and help close the hole of a $350,000 yearly operating deficit that gets backfilled only by using general fund education dollars, Smith and Griffith said.

The district polled the community in English and Spanish about the concept earlier this month, to which 942 people responded, a number Smith called “significant” at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Of those who participated, 464 were parents, 105 were students, 307 were WWPS employees and 66 were community members.

Their answers gave the following results:

About 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the proposed adjustments to elementary school start times will better serve the needs of students, while about 20 percent of poll participants disagreed or strongly disagreed. The idea is to move those elementary start times to somewhere around the 7:50 a.m. to 8 a.m. mark, Smith told his board, noting some parents expressed concern for any school starts before 8 a.m., even by 10 minutes.

Changing middle schools’ opening bell to 8:50 a.m. — but opening the doors of Garrison and Pioneer middle schools at 7:45 a.m. for before-school activities — drew about a 55 percent approval rating, while less than 20 percent of respondents disagreed that the move would be good for students. The district has committed to keeping kids engaged early in the day with quality programs, allowing parents to drop off their middle-school students before heading to work, Smith said.

Moving both early and regular high school start times later by 20 minutes got the biggest vote of confidence, with more that 66 percent agreeing it’s a good idea, while about 14 percent of respondents didn’t think so. About 20 percent were indifferent to the proposed change that starts first period at Walla Walla High School at 7:50 a.m.instead of 7:30 a.m.

All change times are a work in progress, Smith said, but will mean a $4 million savings over 10 years, simply by allowing bus drivers to complete an elementary and high school route and start again to get students to middle schools. In the end, that means more hours for fewer employees. Plus fewer buses on the road reduces fuel and insurance costs for the district and buffers the bus replacement schedule — yellow buses sell for $130,000, he reminded board members.

Last month Smith said the proposal would also allow the district to provide students with transportation home from after school options, meaning more students will be able to participate in those after school activities.

With the board’s agreement on the record, the district’s transportation team will immediately begin work on solidifying the new transportation plan. Officials will also begin an information campaign to make sure families are fully informed of the changes for the 2019-2020 school year as soon as possible, Smith said Tuesday.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.