Start times: Middle schools as the earliest?

Educators are moving forward with a proposed three-tier bus system that would move middle school students into the district’s early time slot, starting at 7:25 a.m., and would push back the high school start time 35 minutes.

The proposal that would have students at East Ridge and Scotts Ridge picked up starting at 6:45 was heavily debated at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting.

Superintendent Deborah Low presented members with three options — all three-tier bus systems, as opposed to the current four-tier system.

The next step is surveying everyone in the district — parents, students and staff.

“It will take two to three weeks to craft the survey and we will hear about it again before it’s officially sent out in December,” said Chairman Austin Drukker yesterday. “This is something that affects everyone in the district, top to bottom, and I think what we’re going to find is that nobody likes having the earlier slot time — elementary, middle school or high school. Parents at all three levels have their reasons.”

He added that this is the third time in 10 years that the board has faced the high school start time issue.

“It’s always been a hot-button topic and it’s always going to receive a good amount of pushback,” he predicted.

The switch from a four-tier system to one using three runs would cost the district around $480,000 because it would require six additional buses to handle the elementary children.

Under the current system, preschool students start at 9:10 along with three of the district’s elementary schools — Barlow Mountain, Farmingville and Veterans Park. The other three schools — Ridgebury, Scotland and Branchville — start at 8:35.

One of the complaints board members have heard is that the three schools that start later get out too late — at 4 p.m.

The proposed system has five of the six elementary schools — Scotland or Barlow Mountain would have to operate in the high school’s 8 a.m. time slot — ending at 3:35, but it has the preschool operating separately and getting out at 4:15, which Ms. Low felt was “very late.”

If the preschool vans are to be consolidated with the proposed elementary start time of 8:45, it would cost the district an additional $320,000.

“We must keep pre-K separate from other times; otherwise it will be financially unrealistic,” Ms. Low said.

Mr. Drukker said he didn’t know how many questions would be on the survey but that it would look the same for everybody and that it would include the cost factor.

“One of the questions that should be asked to parents is, Which areas would you like to see diminished? Programs? Athletics?” he said. “Something will have to get cut, and that’s where I think a lot of parents will get hung up.”

Budget cuts were certainly an area for contention at Tuesday’s meeting, where board members weighed the pros and the cons of each of Ms. Low’s three proposals.

“We’re talking about almost $500,000 being moved around in our budget,” said vice chairwoman Irene Burgess. “Something is going to have to be left out.”

The first option bumped RHS back 25 minutes to a 7:50 start time, while still managing to consolidate five of the six elementary schools at 9:10 and starting the two middle schools at 8:30, which is 30 minutes later than they currently start.

Barlow Mountain or Scotland would have to join the high school at the early slot, though.

“I don’t think spending 1% of our budget to change start times is going to make much of a difference,” said board member John Palermo. “The study says an hour of sleep makes a difference, not 15 or 30 minutes, and there’s no way of guaranteeing high school students will even get that.”

“Spending money to save 20 minutes of time doesn’t seem worth it to me,” said board member Richard Steinart. “And then there’s the drawback of starting Scotland or Barlow Mountain very early, which I’m sure won’t go over well.”

The second option, which was the “path of least of resistance,” was the one the board decided to move with because it avoided the late elementary school end time and pushed back the high school by 35 minutes.

The third option, also rejected, had the elementary schools starting at 7:25 with the high school opening at 8 and the middle schools at 8:45.

“Elementary parents are not going to want their kids getting picked up at 6:45 in the morning, I can tell you that much,” Ms. Low said.

One of the other issues raised in the meeting was the dismissal time at RHS, in particular for athletes who get excused to leave class early to go to away games.

Ms. Low said the high school could get out “absolutely no later” than 2:50, which it would under the proposed system.

“We can make it work, but before we go ahead with it, I think it’s important we get a sense of whether or not the students feel this change will make a difference at all,” said high school principal Stacey Gross.

Board member Karen Sulzinsky echoed that point, stating that the board needed to stop debating the issue based on anecdotes and parent complaints.

“This has a lifestyles element piece to it, not just education,” she said. “The point of changing this is not what my kid or your kid has done, or likes to do; what matters here is how the public feels and how the kids feel. I don’t see why we’d go any further with this if they’re not on board.”

The school district would spend $3,676,117 on a four-tier bus system in 2014-15 that used 30 buses and 16 vans. It would spend $4,150,688 if the bus system were to switch to three tiers, using 36 buses and 16 vans, possibly 20.

An additional bus or van costs $80,000 each.

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