Board of Education members on Monday night debated whether to remove an expensive option to start school times later from a survey of the school and wider community that is to go out next week.
It would cost an estimated $1.2 million to $1.4 million annually beyond what New Canaan currently pays for its “three-tiered” busing system (about $3.2 million per year) to switch to a “two-tiered” option that would require more buses to get kids to school.
Whereas the public schools currently start between 7:30 and 9 a.m., the two-tiered option—the most expensive presented by a consultant in November—would see all of Saxe Middle School and New Canaan High School start at 8:15 a.m. while all three elementary schools would start at 9:10 a.m.
Noting that the district doesn’t yet know what its spending request for fiscal year 2021 will be, Board of Ed Chairman Brendan Hayes said that if “we think we are going to reallocate $1 million of our budget into a two-tier system and we decide that it’s in the best interests of students to remove that $1 million from two or three programs—and we think because of all the work that we have done, with the administration, that that is the absolute best thing that we can do for all of the students in New Canaan—then that is what it is.”
“That is what we should bring forward,” he said during the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
“We may decide that we want to increase the budget by that incremental $1.3 million and we can explain to everybody in town why we are doing that, why it is the absolute best thing for all the kids in town,” Hayes added. “And it may be the Town Council and Board of Finance disagree with us and say, ‘You’ve to cut $1.3 million.’ OK, then we are not making that change. We are going back to a three-tier system. Maybe operationally that’s impossible. But I think we should preserve the option to make the decision as to exactly what happens from a start times perspective and overall budget perspective, rather than just throwing it out and saying we absolutely can’t do it because it’s been such a difficult budget process and things are tough in the state. I don’t want to throw out an option that may be the best for the kids in town just because we are under a lot of pressure.”
Board of Ed Vice Chair Dionna Carlson said she didn’t know whether fellow board members were interested in seeking an estimated $1.3 million each year in order to accommodate the two-tiered busing system.
“I could be wrong but I don’t think the town would be supportive in this economic environment, with the way the state is in such a dire economic situation, for us to say we are going to spend $1.2 million to $1.4 million additionally every year more from here out—I couldn’t go into a budget meting next year with my head held high, because we are not being good partners with the town, I don’t think,” Carlson said.
She added that the Board of Ed has “a huge risk of skewing the survey to a certain group in town that will sit and take a 12- or 15-minute survey and other voices will not be heard.”
“So I just want to make sure we get the broadest participation and that it is an accurate reflection,” Carlson said.
The comments came as Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi and the Board of Ed reviewed a “school schedule survey” that will go out to the school community next week. The meeting was attended by about 20 parents who, citing established health data, have been eager to see the Board of Ed make headway toward a new system under which adolescents are not forced to wake up so early to attend school.
The survey is being administered by Arlington, Va.-based Hanover Research, and Luizzi said he and district officials have met with the firm to review it. Hanover is to analyze the survey results, aggregate that data and present it to the Board of Ed in June, so that by the end of June the Board can “give the administration solid direction” to work on it over the summer, Luizzi said, a time when “we are not building and defending budgets, we are not doing all of those things that we do on a daily basis when the school year is in session.”
The survey itself will ask respondents to identify their role—such as “student,” “staff,” “parent” or local business owner who employs high school students—and direct them to specific questions based on that role, Luizzi said. The survey also would include secondary resources for respondents seeking more information in order to fill it out, Luizzi said.
“So if somebody is responding to this and they feel they do not have enough information to respond, there will be links to click out to watch a 3-minute video, to read an article to learn more or even to reach out to us to ask specific questions,” he said.
Parents with multiple children in the system may retake the survey for each child if they choose to, Luizzi said. Among students, it originally was planned to go to those in eighth grade and up, but Luizzi said that after hearing from an articulate seventh-grader during the public comments portion of the meeting, the district should consider including seventh-graders, too.
Though the survey, even in draft form, became a public document under state sunshine laws after the Board of Ed reviewed it at a public meeting, Luizzi said he preferred that it not become publicly available “because we want people to take it live and we don’t want to jeopardize the validity of that.”
Based on Luizzi’s description, the guts of the survey are designed to gauge how four different start- and end-time options will affect the various stakeholders.
Those four options, presented in the context of attendant bus service costs in November by Walworth, N.Y.-based Transportation Advisory Services, will be ordered randomly in the survey and include:
- A “two-tiered” busing system under which the elementary schools start at 9:10 a.m. and Saxe Middle School and New Canaan High School start at 8:15 a.m.;
- A three-tiered system that flips two busing tiers, so that South School and the fifth and sixth grades at Saxe start at 7:30 a.m., while East and West Schools start at 9:05 a.m. and the seventh and eighth grades at Saxe and NCHS all start at 8:15 a.m.;
- A three-tiered system that has the three elementary schools starting at 7:40 a.m., NCHS at 8:25 a.m. and Saxe at 9:05 a.m.;
- And a three-tiered system where nobody starts before 8 a.m., with the high school running 8 a.m. to 2:35 p.m., elementary schools 8:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m and Saxe 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For each option, parents will be asked to rate from “very negative” to “very positive” the impact of the schedule on several aspects of their child’s life (students would make the same evaluation of themselves in the survey), including physical health (sleep, time for meals), mental and emotional health (stress and anxiety), family routines, availability of transportation to and from school, time for homework, time for extra help, student part-time employment (for high school students), participation in outside activities, personal time outside of school, before-school care, after-school care, safety, traffic congestion at the beginning and end of day, work schedules and parent meetings.
Staff and community members would receive a different set of questions for each schedule option, Luizzi said.
Respondents also will be asked to what they degree they would support or oppose the four proposed schedules.
Citing data from TAS, Luizzi said the two-tiered busing system—because it would require the use of additional buses, rather than sending the same buses out repeatedly—would cost about $1.2 million to $1.4 million more, each year, than the current system. The second option listed above, which flips two current busing tiers, would cost about $250,000 to $350,000 more annually than the current system. The third option would cost about $300,000 to $450,000 more, and the fourth option $100,000 to $300,000 more each year than the current system.
Respondents also will have a chance to give feedback, and the interactive survey will outline next steps.
“This is very important so we want to make sure we get it out as widely as we can,” Luizzi said.
The survey is expected to take at least 15 minutes—a length that Board of Ed member Sheri West said was overly long.
“The reality is and research shows that people will not take 15 minute survey, unfortunately,” she said.
Hayes said it may be possible to eliminate scenarios that are not realistic.
“We have on here a third three-tier schedule that has Saxe ending at 4 o’clock,” Hayes said. He added, “I am not supportive … of a schedule that has Saxe starting at 9:30 [a.m.] and ending at 4 [p.m.]”
Luizzi said he and administrators are meeting Wednesday with Hanover and would review the recommendations, including whether such an unrealistic schedule could be recast in the survey as an informational bullet point rather than as an option.
Regarding the discussion between Hayes and Carlson on whether to include the most expensive start-time option on the survey, the superintendent said he worried about “pitting programs against start time” so that it’s framed as a “one or the other kind of thing.”
“Because one should not diminish the other,” Luizzi said.
He added that the Board’s decision on a start time should not result “in the elimination of opportunities that our kids currently have.”
Hayes said he himself didn’t think a two-tiered schedule was workable because the Board of Ed would be “forced” to make decisions about school programs due to pressure from the town and state.
Luizzi said he would discuss the point with Hanover, share the firm’s feedback and pursue a survey launch for next week.