Thursday’s Town Council vote on the school budget will determine whether school start times will change next year to improve student health. It’s a decision we never wanted to make.
It was thought the controversy might be resolved before the Town Council got involved.
Just maybe, we thought, the Board of Education would back down after being confronted by opponents and after learning how disruptive the change would be. But student health was the BOE’s first priority and they forged ahead.
Just maybe, a group of dissenting elementary school parents would sour people on the proposal, as their schedules could be the most severely affected. But they endorsed an 8:00 am start time for elementary schools compared to 7:50 am in the BOE proposal—a mere 10-minute difference. Only a handful of dissidents spoke against the BOE budget at Tuesday night’s public hearing compared to 43 who spoke in favor. Many more elementary school parents spoke for the change than against it.
Just maybe, before the school budget came to the Town Council, the Board of Finance would reduce it so severely that start time changes would be impossible. But they didn’t. The BOF explicitly approved funding for the changes.
Just maybe, the economic crisis would compel us to make a major cut. But we’re told by the Board of Finance that we have more effective ways of managing the town’s risk, including a $30 million reserve and the option to defer capital projects costing millions more. At this time, cutting $1 million from the school budget simply isn’t necessary to ensure that the town can pay its bills. If that changes, our approach can change.
Just maybe, the school budget would drive up the property tax rate, so we’d have to cut for that reason. But as it happens, even if start time changes are funded, the mill rate will increase very little, if at all.
Just maybe, the school district would find other savings so that start time changes could proceed even with a $1 million cut. But the message from school leaders is loud and clear: Start time changes won’t happen if we cut $1 million. That’s not just gamesmanship. School leaders legitimately believe that savings of that magnitude aren’t possible without jeopardizing educational quality.
Just maybe, in the town survey, the majority of residents would demand that we cut school funding in order to lower taxes. But the survey results didn’t show that.
So here we are, exactly where we didn’t want to be. No Town Council member is against student health, yet none of us is happy that we have to decide the issue.
Make no mistake, however. Thursday’s vote will decide whether start times are changed. Accordingly, it will decide whether we enhance students’ happiness, academic performance, and immunity from disease, and whether we reduce their risk of traffic accidents and mental illness. Like it or not, fair or not, it’s on us.
This is one of those moments when we get to choose what we’re known for.
Tom Butterworth is a member of—but does not speak for-—he New Canaan Town Council.