The Board of Education on Monday voted 6-2 to change to a school start times schedule that will see elementary schools start first in the morning (at 7:50 a.m.), followed by grades seven through 12 (8:30 a.m.) and then grades five and six (9:15 a.m.).
Dubbed “Scenario A” by New Canaan Public Schools officials, the schedule would take effect next April. The Board had also been considering a “Scenario B,” which would have seen grades five and six start first (7:45 a.m.), follows by grades seven through 12 (8:30 a.m.) and the elementary schools last (9:15 a.m.).
Saying additional school buses could be hired on a trial basis, Board member Dionna Carlson urged the elected body to either adopt Scenario A on the condition that the district “solve for” an elementary school start time no earlier than 8 a.m., or else adopt Scenario B.
“We need to sharpen our pencils—7:50 is nice but 8 o’clock is not an unreasonable request and I think that because we have these local schools, you could add a few more buses in the early tier and then those buses would be done getting those kids back quicker than they normally would be if it was a Saxe or high school drop off at the end of the day,” Carlson said during the meeting, held both in persona and via videoconference.
“The research that I read about elementary start times is when you are looking at giving high schoolers more sleep, don’t ever do it at expense of the younger kids,” she added. “That isn’t the right solution and our results have shown that East and West kids are doing phenomenally well at a 9:05 start time, despite what anecdotally our teachers are saying. There is something we are doing that is making those kids perform well.”
Yet other Board of Education members pushed back, saying they trust that NCPS administrators and an “implementation team” being formed now will do what is healthiest and best for children in the school district. They also said it doesn’t make sense to draw a hard line at 8 a.m. when the district already has been able to move the elementary school start time from 7:45 a.m. to 7:50 a.m. and will work toward improving that number even more to get it as late as possible.
Board of Ed member Carl Gardiner said, “I just think we nee to maintain flexibly so to put a hard ‘it needs to be 8 a.m. or bust’ I think is going to create a bad situation.”
Board of Ed member Jennifer Richardson said district officials “have been working on this for so long and personally I have full confidence in our administration and our teachers.”
“Everyone has been working so hard I just feel like if we are not ready to do this in April  and we do not have the support for childcare set up, unless everyone is 100% ready to go,” Richardson said. “The whole reason we are not doing it in the beginning of next year is because we are still dealing with all these COVID-related issues and just trying to get back on our feet with that before jumping into something that’s another really big change. But if we are not making a decision tonight on how we are moving forward, it’s like kicking the can again. I mean how long have we been doing this? Honestly. And you know what? Whatever we decide, we are going to have people who are not happy, for sure.”
Gardiner, Richardson, Vice Chair Brendan Hayes, Secretary Julie Reeves, Penny Rashin and Sheri West voted in favor of implementing Scenario A.
Carlson and Board member Bob Naughton voted against.
Board Chair Katrina Parkhill was absent.
The discussion and vote followed a failed referendum vote last week that would have removed about $460,000 from the Board of Ed’s operating budget next fiscal year—the amount of money needed for additional buses in order to enact changes to school start times.
Several Board of Ed members and members of the public who addressed the panel during a public comments section of the meeting referred to the outcome of the referendum vote. Those opposed to the start times change noted that 42% of those who voted cast votes to remove the funding. Those in favor of the start time changes noted that more people voted against reducing the budget, and also that the balloting itself failed to draw enough electors to carry the referendum.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said he hoped that the implementation team would be formed by the end of this month.
“As we are doing all of this, we are going to always be careful not to over-promise and under-deliver,” he said.
“At this point, as we are doing this, nothing is off the table,” Luizzi said. “So we are going to keeping looking at how we can shift that first tier to get it as late as possible without negatively impacting other tiers. So we will keep bringing those to the Board. But as we know, there’s not a magical solution. We all wish we could just go to bed tonight, wake up tomorrow and say, ‘There it is, all students will go to school at 8:20 or 8:30’ or whatever. It doesn’t work that way. And just really wanting it, doesn’t make it happen. We are bound by the laws of physics, and we really have come to understand many of the constraints that we are dealing with. These are physical constraints. Like the locations of our buildings. The way they are located in our town, it just takes time to travel the roads, to get the buses back. Speed limits on the roads are a limitation. The limitation of the Saxe facility, as we know.”
The Board of Ed began discussing proposed changes to school start times at public meetings in 2017. After years of studies, surveys, workshops and meetings, the superintendent in January 2020 proposed a budget that included funding for new start and end times for the following fiscal and academic year. However, a divided Town Council during its final budget vote effectively forestalled the proposal. Luizzi’s proposed budget for next fiscal year again included the funding for additional buses to change start times, and it was approved by the Board of Ed and town funding bodies.
The referendum grew out of the Town Council’s decision during final budget deliberations to reject a motion to reduce Board of Ed spending by $463,337 next year.
Several parents who have been vocal at past meetings regarding start times and the referendum vote addressed the Board of Ed on Monday night.
Jennifer Dalipi, who helped lead a group opposed to the start times scenario, thanked Carlson and Naughton.
“You both have been shining examples of fairness, empathy, great listeners and tons of courage to stand for our littlest children and quite frankly our high school,” she said.
“All ages have something that is optimal and fair. What the rest of the Board has done has been to cherry-pick data, to drive an agenda that I don’t understand what it gets any of you, except to upset so many in our community. What is wrong with getting all of elementary to 8 a.m.? It is not five minutes. It is not 10 minutes. It is going from 9:05 to 8 o’clock. It’s a huge change for East and West, and even for South. It’s the difference between leaving your house before 7 a.m. in the morning, and 7:15. It’s tremendous. A little empathy from all of you could have been welcomed by so many and its’ so disappointing. I also want to point out: There has got to be a stop to fudging the numbers. 94% of this community did not vote ‘No.’ It is what it is. Of the people who came out and voted, which I understand was a tremendous amount in any referendum in this town. We were thought to maybe getting 500, we got close to 2,000. It’s nothing to sneeze at. We have to stop twisting the numbers. We need to stick to the facts. And we need to have empathy. Very disappointing. You all have shown where you sit and who you are aligned, quite frankly, and honestly it does not feel like tis with the children in this community. And that’s a true shame, considering the positions you are elected to be on.”
Jodie Azzopardi addressed the board “as a member of the community who supports Scenario A and as a an elementary and preschool parent myself.”
“I want to thank the Board for choosing this scenario, which I think will benefit all of our children,” she said. “Thank you to the Board and Dr. Luizzi for all the time and effort you have put into deciding this. I also appreciate all the dissenting votes, because that is part of a democratic process and I hope that as a community we can move forward together and make this work for everybody.”
Hilary Ormond also thanked the Board of Ed and administration “for the time you put into this,” and said that many of the criticisms of school board members and district officials have been inaccurate.
“I just can’t sit here and listen to, frankly, this abuse, about how you don’t care about our youngest children or any children,” Ormond said. “It’s just simply not true. I know that you do. I know that all of you have worked so hard, particularly you, Dr. Luizzi. And I’m just sitting here, and my heart is pounding hearing that. I don’t even have children in the public school system right now, but to know what you all have done over the past year and to hear this come from members of our community just breaks my heart. And I just can’t stand for it. I’m sorry. So I just want to thank you, I want to thank you for what you have done for our students, all of our students, through this issue and through this year. Because the industry of this town is our schools. It’s what has brought people here this year, fleeing from the city. They’ve seen the work that you all do. They know how much you care for our children. So I have full faith that will do your best to get our children to a great start time. It’s going to be the best and the healthiest for our kids.”