Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi on Monday night proposed a spending plan for next academic year that includes funding for widely discussed changes to start times.
The estimated $463,337—part of an overall $95.7 million proposed operating budget—would cover transportation- and staff-related costs associated with changing school start times mid-year, Luizzi told members of the Board of Education during their regular meeting.
The changes—which would see elementary schools start at 7:45 a.m., New Canaan High School at 8:30 a.m., seventh and eighth grades at 8:35 a.m. and fifth and sixth grades at 9:15 a.m.—represent the same schedule that the Board of Education had brought before the Town Council last April in making a funding request that the legislative body ultimately rejected.
Luizzi said the change is a student health-and-wellness initiative that’s designed to align schedules with established, scientific data on sleep. He said district officials are anticipating that the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the way schools operate when they open Aug. 30, and noted that there are several practical advantages to pushing back a change to start times to the middle of the academic year rather than the very beginning of it.
“The fall is too unpredictable,” Luizzi said at the meeting, whose attendees participated both in-person and remotely.
“Even our enrollment is unpredictable, as we look at it. So knowing all the questions that are out there, and wanting to have some more time to bring in some more community members, as well, for some of the discussions, because the plan we bring before you, we believe we have carefully vetted it. We have looked at it. We have looked at the constraints and worked things through. But we’d like to have opportunities for more people to have some more discussion about it, if they feel that this isn’t the right plan. We’d like to have that conversation, and learn what their thinking is, share with them what we know and see where things go. Ultimately, when this kind of a large, whole-district systems change initiative goes through, it works best when it’s seen as a community-wide initiative. Not a superintendent’s initiative, not a buildings initiative, not a Board of Ed’s initiative. But we want it to be community-wide. So we think that that extra time allow some more of those conversations to occur, as well. There is also a very practical reason to do it mid-year, which is our budget not being approved and finalized until March 31st doesn’t give enough lead time for the bus company to order the buses, get the drivers.”
New Canaan is now in its fifth year of studying and discussing proposed changes to school start times.
The Board of Ed began to address the issue publicly in August 2017, and in the years that followed conducted research on adolescent sleep and wellness, commissioned a study on lessons learned by other districts that have made changes, as well as a transportation study with a feasibility routing analysis, ran an online survey and multiple community workshops, and held public hearings and faculty meetings while launching a New Canaan Public Schools webpage dedicated to the topic.
Parents spoke out on both sides of proposed changes. Many of those in favor cited established medical data and recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics in arguing that the schools and town must do more to ensure that adolescents get sufficient sleep. Many of those opposed said it was unfair to New Canaan’s youngest kids and their parents to start the elementary schools so much earlier in the morning.
Some members of the Town Council, in voting in favor of a budget that was about $1 million less than what the Board of Education had requested—effectively forestalling changes to school start times—said they were convinced that New Canaan adolescents should start school later, but that the wide economic uncertainty due to COVID-19 made it the wrong time to introduce significant new transportation costs. (The approximately $1 million annual cost is tied mainly to hiring additional buses, as required by the Board of Ed’s favored school start times schedule.)
This year, the budget vote will come ahead of a municipal election that includes six Town Council seats. Among those whose seats are up for re-election are four councilmen who voted, a part of the 8-4 overall vote, in favor of a budget with $1 million less than what the Board of Ed had requested last year—Chair John Engel, Vice Chair and Secretary Rich Townsend, Liz Donovan and Penny Young.
Luizzi during Monday’s Board of Ed meeting said that even through the pandemic, “one of the things that continues to be written about and studied is the impact of sleep on health and the immune system and what have you.”
“Last week, while we were remote at the high school, we started our school day at 8 o’clock,” he said. “We gave students a little extra time to sleep in. The block schedule that we have implemented at the high school is a rotating block schedule, and I’ve talked to [NCHS Principal] Bill [Egan] a little bit if we are going to continue this can we have all four periods rotating, so that if anyone has a free period anywhere in their day, it will always at one point or another fall first thing in the morning for that sleep-in. That is another strategy around student health and wellness. The school start times is another strategy around student health and wellness. You never do this just to do it. You do it with that larger goal in mind.”
Luizzi in a budget message that introduces proposed spending plan, and New Canaan Public Schools Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Jo-Ann Keating during the meeting, reviewed the overall spending increase, driven primarily by salary and benefits. “[E]mployee costs represent 81% of this Superintendent’s Budget Proposal,” Luizzi said in his message.
He noted that a look at year-over-year spending changes may be misleading, because the pandemic forced elimination some programs and other activities (such as extracurriculars, athletics and programs in visual and performing arts) on a one-off basis for the current academic year. Luizzi said that COVID-19 ultimately will alter spending across three academic years, and that his proposed budget represents a trending increase of 2.13% over five years.
The school board accepted Luizzi’s proposed budget on a first-read basis, and will return to it for a second read at its Jan. 25 meeting.
Board of Ed Vice Chair Brendan Hayes thanked Luizzi, Keating and the administration for its work in compiling the proposed budget.
“In a typical year it’s difficult to explain in detail how this budget changes, and this year, to do it in a cohesive, detailed and I think easy-to-understand way, it’s a testament to all the hard work and professionalism,” he said.
Chair Katrina Parkhill called the superintendent’s budget an “excellent start.”
“I look forward to more conversations about it,” she said.