The Board of Education on Tuesday night voted 6-1 to recommend an approximately $92.8 million spending plan for next fiscal year.
The budget brought forward by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi and endorsed by the school board during its regular meeting represents a 1.47% increase over current spending—within Board of Finance guidelines.
It includes about $950,000 needed for new transportation costs that would come with a revised school start times schedule, though it is unclear which of two equally expensive start time scenarios the Board of Ed ultimately will recommend.
The first scenario, studied and discussed extensively for months, would see the three elementary schools start together at 7:45 a.m., followed by the seventh and eighth grades at Saxe Middle School and all of New Canaan High School at 8:30 a.m. with the fifth and sixth grades at Saxe starting together at 9:15 a.m.
Major advantages of that schedule include starting school late enough that adolescents get sufficient sleep, district officials have said, citing established medical data and recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It also would see all three elementary schools get onto the same start and end time schedule and avoid having those young kids in school late into the afternoon, when anecdotal evidence says they tire out, officials have said.
Yet based on strong feedback from the community, including families with kids in elementary school, Board of Ed Chair Katrina Parkhill said the elected body may consider another scenario that “flips” the first and last “tiers.” In other words, the fifth and sixth grades would start at 7:45 a.m. while the elementary schools would all start at 9:15 a.m., she said.
“This scenario may more appropriately balance schedules, in response to family and community needs,” Parkhill said during the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at NCHS.
After much discussion, those voting in favor of the superintendent’s proposed budget included Parkhill, Board Vice Chair Brendan Hayes, Carl Gardiner, Jennifer Richardson, Sheri West and Julie Mackle Reeves. Board member Dionna Carlson voted against it, with Bob Naughton abstaining. Penny Rashin was absent.
Parkhill reviewed the Board’s efforts since August 2017 to study and discuss publicly the question of whether to change start times in New Canaan, saying it has included research on adolescent sleep and wellness, a commissioned study on lessons learned by other districts that have made changes, a transportation study with a feasibility routing analysis, an online survey, two community workshops, public hearings, faculty meetings and a New Canaan Public Schools webpage dedicated to the topic.
“So what did we learn from this feedback? We know that the vast majority of parents agree with change and support of more sleep for teens and of a later start time for seventh through twelfth grades,” Parkhill said.
“The research and support for adolescent sleep is well understood and appreciated. However, a prevailing theme in recent feedback concerns start times for grades K through six, and how starting elementary schools on the first tier at 7:45 a.m would impact younger students and their families. Some feel it is simply too early for their youngest children. Others cited commutes, logistics and childcare challenges as reasons. We also heard from many dual working parents who wholeheartedly support this change, and others who strongly oppose this option. The Board has strived for an open process that has allowed us to hear the many perspectives within our community. Perhaps what is most clear is that support for change is personal and often based on the current ages of children. Yet many cited the profound research as reason to look long-term and support more sleep for adolescents. As a community, there will be tradeoffs and we will all need to adjust in some way. Even if we do not change schedules in light of all the information we have, each scheduling tier, with or without change, will have a different start and end times and adjustments will need to be made over the years as children move through our system, as we all do today. As a fellow parent and a community member, I do believe that our community will rise and work together in response to whatever path we determine is most appropriate for our students.”
She called for Board of Ed members to solicit feedback on and review the alternative scenario prior to their Feb. 3 meeting, during which a final recommendation would be made to the superintendent. Meanwhile, the district’s proposed spending plan will come before town bodies as scheduled. The Board of Ed is to present its budget Thursday morning to the Board of Selectmen, with the town funding bodies to follow in February and March and a final Town Council vote in April.
Carlson said she has “serious reservations” about the initial proposed school start time schedule, that lack of communication led to a “huge community uprising” against it and that more input from parents and the wider community is needed. She also noted that the favored start time scenario now under consideration is more expensive than the one that the Board voiced support for in June, and said she’s concerned about the effect that changing start times will have on New Canaan’s prized teachers.
“At the high school I still would like to reiterate that I have serious concerns about the loss of a 45-minute planning period after school that is likely to move the high school student help, makeup tests, quizzes and many if not most clubs to the morning,” she said. “I said this before but it bears repeating: I believe this to be an educational equity issue. While many students would be able to have parents drive them to school early—and there is a percentage of our population that relies on bus transport get to school … so they wouldn’t be able to get to school early [for extra help] without a bus transport. I believe that we could be inadvertently disadvantaging a segment of our population that most needs access to the enrichment or extra help.”
Other Board members said that they had studied the start time options extensively and communicated with parents, and that in the end doing what’s best for student health and wellness must be the guiding principle of their decision.
Mackle Reeves said she’s struggled in recent weeks to figure out what’s the best path forward “because it is really hard when we are the ones making these decisions for our town, and it seems like a good number of people, a good percentage, are unhappy and that is very hard.”
“But I think over the last couple of weeks as we have been getting these emails and we have been meeting together, I have come back again to the science and to the fact that we really need to be thinking about the health of our kids first. One of the things that has really struck me … has struck a chord has been teacher the emails that have really only in the last few days started coming in and they are such a valuable part of our children’s education, this is what makes our school district so great. And so the idea that any of them feel, that a decent number feel that we have not paid any attention to them and we are making their situation tougher is hard. So I just want us continue no matter what our decision, to be very mindful of what teachers will be going through in terms of childcare situations or their own commutes.”
She added that even though NCPS faces hurdles as it works to figure out the way forward—such as after-school clubs, athletics or extra help—the district can work on those problems as it goes and that they shouldn’t result in a non-decision now.
“As tempting as it is to put this off for one more year and try to work through everything, I just think there will always be things that we don’t quite get to,” Mackle Reeves said.
Responding to a question from Richardson about accommodations that could be made for some teachers, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said that he and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment Dr. Jill Correnty have met with teachers at all schools.
“One of the things I shared with them was if there is something that’s unique or particular in their situation, that as they look at a new scenario no matter what, it’s going to be any kind of change, and if it looks like they are not going to fit in that new scenario, not to assume ‘no’ but to assume ‘maybe,’ ” Luizzi said. “And to bring that forward to us, so that we can talk about it. So we can try to figure out if there is a way to make whatever accommodation or change—whatever may be specifically for that individual teacher.”