School board backs down on start times (UPDATE)

Forty six residents stood up at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting to demonstrate that they were against the initiative to start Ridgefield schools later. — Peter Yankowski photo

Ridgefield High School students won’t be setting their alarm clocks an hour later next year.

The Board of Education voted Monday, Dec. 10, to throw out a decision it made in October 2017 to implement later start times for the 2019-20 school year.

“I think you heard the board saying that at some point this could come back … but not at this point, not for 2019-20,” said Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis, who confirmed the board will not vote on start times again during the 2018-19 school year.

“It’s not an easy decision,” she said.

Members of the board voted 6-1 to rescind the 2017 motion on start times, with board member Carina Borgia-Drake casting the sole vote against. Board members Jonathan Steckler and Vice Chairman Doug Silver were both absent from the meeting.

Stamatis said the current start times at the district’s nine schools will remain in place, with Ridgefield High School starting first at 7:25 a.m. followed by the two middle schools at 8. Branchville, Ridgebury, and Scotland Elementary schools begin at 8:35, under the school board’s current start time policy, and Barlow Mountain, Farmingville, and Veterans Park Elementary schools start at 9:10.

Board Secretary Kathleen Holz said the board received 114 emails against later school start times and 18 emails for the proposed change.

At Monday night’s meeting, 13 residents gave public comment — 10 were against the later start times initiative, three in favor.

“There are a myriad of issues that need to be resolved,” said Stephen Cole, a substitute teacher and coach at RHS.

He argued that with later end times as a result of starting an hour later, student athletes would have to leave class early to attend games.

“Educational excellence is achieved in the classroom, not in the back of the bus,” Cole said. “Putting students between teachers and their coaches is unconscionable.”

Others cited the lack of a permanent superintendent.

“Why would we approve an initiative like this without a superintendent?” said Pond Road resident Bryan Ward.

He also raised concern about the potential impact on sports, after-school programs, and local businesses who depend on high school student employees.

“As a parent, a coach, and a taxpayer, I’m not buying it,” Ward said.

Superintendent

Board members said they felt the project could not be done effectively without a permanent superintendent in place.

“I can’t see how without having a permanent superintendent in place — who would be the person responsible for creating and implementing this plan — that there’s the possibility that this could occur in a positive way for the 2019-20 school year,” said board member Sharon D’Orso. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t still believe in the science,” she added.

Borgia-Drake said she agreed the lack of a permanent superintendent would hinder the ability to implement later start times in the 2019-20 school year, but that students “having six hours of sleep continues to be a concern.”

“I would hope that we would have this be something that we keep as a priority for our board and for our children,” she said.

Borgia-Drake said the board should take another look at elementary schools that end late — Barlow Mountain, Farmingville, and Veterans Park all end at 4 p.m. — and students who are not getting the “full educational benefit of their last period.”

‘Tremendous’ cost

The board also cited concerns about the cost of the project.

A scenario the board asked the superintendent’s office to investigate at an Oct. 22 meeting would have cost an estimated $2.77 million.

“I believe the science … but I cannot at this point agree to $2.7 million being taken out of our children’s education at this time,” said Holz.

“The cost is just tremendous,” said board member Jim Keidel. “I’d rather see those resources go to curriculum, or repairing buildings, or paying teachers, or things that we can see something tangible.”

Five elementary schools would have started at 8 a.m. under that proposed scenario.

But according to School Bus Consultants, the consultants hired by the board to come up with new busing plans for later start times, shifting only those five early-start elementary schools back by 10 minutes would drop the cost to $1.58 million — a savings of almost $1.2 million.

Transportation issues

It was that inconsistency that some board members said gave them pause, and raised doubts about the school transportation system as it currently stands.

“This report highlights to me that even with the current bus runs as they are, we still have some transportation issues that we’re trying to resolve,” said Stamatis.

All of the bell-time scenarios the board looked at that would have moved the schools back to a three-tier bus system came with an additional cost.

“When we went to the four-tier system, we locked ourselves into a really difficult position,” said board member Fran Walton. “It was done with an immediate cost savings… with no thought to anything down the road.”

Public

Danbury Road resident Lisa Moore said the schools needed to focus on asbestos removal at Scotland and the removal of underground oil storage tanks at Veterans Park Elementary and East Ridge Middle School — both projects included in the board’s capital improvements request.

Moore called the start times project “fiscally irresponsible.”

“Any money allocated to school start times will be money cut from our teachers,” said Moore.

But not all were against the change.

“We need to move forward with this,” said Jessica Mancini, the current vice chairwoman of the Ridgefield Board of Finance.

“[The] extra hour of sleep is invaluable,” said Louzette Dovaras, a Barrack Hill Road resident. She argued that the board’s “investments in other areas” will not get their “return on investment” if kids aren’t getting adequate sleep.

Sandra Mahoney of Wild Turkey Court asked everyone opposed to later start times to stand and show the board where the majority of Ridgefield parents — and taxpayers — stood on the issue. Forty six residents followed that request and rose up in front of the Board of Education and district administrators.

“I ask the Board of Education to make a motion to rescind the approval of the the former superintendent’s recommendation to change school start times for the 2019-20 school year” Mahoney said. “In the interest of time, so you can proceed with the actual business of your meeting, I ask all those here who are in support of this statement to stand and be counted for the public record.”

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story attributed Kerry Knop as the speaker who asked parents to stand in support of rescinding the vote on later start times. It was Sandra Mahoney. This story has been updated.

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