Board of Education members are divided as to whether they have enough feedback and information on a revised school start times schedule to recommend this month that hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending for additional buses be included in a proposed budget for next fiscal year.
No one disagrees that starting grades seven through 12 at 8:30 a.m. as opposed to 7:30 a.m. would benefit students in important ways—established medical research recommends later start times for adolescents.
Under a favored scenario that district officials have developed, New Canaan’s elementary schools would start at 7:45 a.m., though because morning buses could start their routes from the geographically distributed neighborhood schools rather than New Canaan High School, the first student wouldn’t need to be picked up until 7:06 a.m. (currently 6:27 a.m.) when it’s sufficiently light outside that flashlights aren’t needed.
Yet that proposed new schedule also forces a bus usage system that’s far less efficient than the one New Canaan Public Schools now employs, and it would require about six or seven additional buses—at a clip of $100,000 in additional annual spending, per bus—to make the favored start times scenario work.
Board of Ed member Dionna Carlson at the elected body’s Dec. 16 meeting called it “a very expensive option that will go up 3% every year, in perpetuity.”
A similar start times scenario garnered low levels of support in surveys conducted earlier this year, she said, and there are unanswered questions about just how it will affect students seeking extra help from teachers, among other concerns. To include funding for the busing system as part of the school board’s Jan. 15 proposed budget read-through and later vote doesn’t allow enough time “to get the kind feedback on a very expensive option that will have major impacts on all levels of this community,” Carlson said at the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
“There are significant challenges with this scenario,” she said. “I’m not saying I cannot get comfortable with it, but I am not comfortable with it now, and to ask me to include it in a budget for next year without having parent feedback, without having more research … I want to understand all those concerns. Are our kids going to have to do before-school tutoring and all that? I want to understand that before I say ‘I support it.’ And this is the first time as a Board member I have had to say to put a significant [item] in our budget without really understanding the ramifications for the system as a whole. So I feel like I am being put in a very difficult position as a Board member.”
School board member Bob Naughton also called for more feedback prior to a vote, and said it would make more sense for the Board of Ed to break out a vote on the start times change prior to an up-or-down vote on the overall budget.
Other Board members disagreed, saying that New Canaan has been working on school start times for two years, that the scenario now under consideration itself grew out of surveys and other responses from the community, that it aligns with medical data for teens, puts all three public elementary schools on the same schedule and ends the school day for those youngest students before they tire out, and that it also can be adjusted as a result of further feedback.
Though the details in areas such as after-school care and high school athletics still must be worked out, Board of Ed Vice Chair Brendan Hayes said he is “supportive of continuing to move forward with this option and including it in the budget.”
“I feel it’s the best solution relative to what we have today, all of the other options that we have looked at,” Hayes said.
He added, “I think it’s time for us as Board to take all of the information that we have examined, the feedback that we have gotten and make a decision as to what we want to do and I don’t think it’s really fair, frankly, to the community or the students to put it to them in a sort of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as it relates to change in a sort of binary type option because, frankly, I think this is something that requires a lot of deep thinking and work that we are here to do that work. And we have done that work. We have done that deep thinking and diligence and it’s at the point at which need to make a call on how to move forward.”
Board of Ed Chair Katrina Parkhill called it “a tough topic.”
“It’s complex, and we have been at it for a while, and I think we know that we are not going to achieve full consensus in our community,” she said. “We have different opinions—I think it depends on where your kids are in the system, what you’re used to. Change, if we move forward, will be hard. Not doing anything will be hard. So I think we are at a point now where we have to either decide to move the best possible scenario before us, if everyone is in agreement that this is the best possible. We need to continue to look for feedback from the community. But we have about a month to do so. Moving it into the budget gives us one more data point. It gives us another important piece of helping us make this decision. If we don’t, then we are kind of back where we are and we are saying that doing nothing is the right thing to do.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi opened the discussion by reviewing how the district homed in on the scenario now before the Board, noting that the start times themselves aren’t final and could need to be adjusted five minutes either way (in part because it won’t be clear until next fall where kindergartners will need to be picked up for the 2020-21 academic year). The district ran two large focus groups, hired consultants and in three surveys solicited feedback from various parts of the New Canaan community, including parents, students and teachers.
“The Board, I think, has really has gone out of its way to try to solicit feedback from the community,” Luizzi said.
According to research from the head of transportation for the public schools, the proposed scenario would see half of New Canaan’s elementary school students picked up after 7:23 a.m., Luizzi said.
Board of Ed members asked when the district would be able to get more feedback on this specific start time proposal (future meetings with parent groups and staff, as well as via email), whether buses that don’t need to be used in the final afternoon run could instead take high school student-athletes to FCIAC sports contests (possibly, requires more research), whether the additional cost of buses would mean eliminating other budget items (unclear), whether the full Board would vote on a school start plan prior to including funding for additional buses in the budget (no, but the superintendent’s proposed budget could itself be presented in different ways that are based on spending on buses) and whether the additional spending on buses under the scenario is $800,000 or something else (the superintendent’s proposed budget will have hard figures).
Board of Ed member Penny Rashin called for more discussions with educators, saying they likely would be more hesitant that groups such as parents to communicate concerns about the proposed changes to start times to the school board or administration.
“One of the groups that doesn’t actually come and talk to us all the time because they don’t want to, it doesn’t make sense for them to do it, are the teachers, whose schedules will be pushed back one hour by this, especially the teachers who live east of New Canaan, because the Merritt traffic is really a bear,” Rashin said. “Oo one of the things I am wondering is, now that we have zeroed in on this option, should we talk to those teachers again, figure out what accommodations if any can be made? I think we are, with this option, going to create for some teachers—not a race, but a very quick exit, just like we have now with East and West elementary students. So I like the option for a lot of reasons but our teachers told us that they don’t like this option but they don’t keep emailing us because that’s what they do.”