Where are the savings? Schools narrow start time scenarios

After months of deliberation, Ridgefield Public Schools has unveiled two options that would allow it to implement later start times at the high school — and potentially save money — in the fall of 2019.

Dr. Robert Miller, the district’s director of technology, presented two options to the Board of Education at its Feb. 12 meeting. Both would push the opening bell at the high school to the desired start time of 8:30 a.m.

The first set of bell times — “Scenario A” — would see Branchville, Barlow Mountain, and Ridgebury elementary schools start at 7:35 a.m. and let out at 2:25 p.m.

Under this strategy, East Ridge and Scotts Ridge middle schools would have the latest start times, with opening bells at 9:10 a.m. and school letting out at 4 p.m.

This option would save the district $180,000 by using two fewer buses than it currently needs. But board Chairwoman Fran Walton was quick to point out that the savings might be good only on paper.

“I know that we have savings projected in one and budget increase in another — there are always unexpected challenges, which normally cost something. I’m loath to think that the $180,000 is real.”

Second option

The other option — “Scenario B” —  would collapse the current four-tier bus-system into three tiers, with both middle schools starting first at 7:40 a.m. The high school and one elementary school, either Scotland or Barlow Mountain, would start at 8:30, with the remaining five elementary schools starting at 9:10 a.m.

That plan would cost the district an extra $360,000 in extra busing needs.

Miller said that plan also does not completely fall in line with medical research around adolescent sleep needs. Ideally, he said, middle school and high school students would both start school at 8:30 a.m. or later, as the research suggests that sleep patterns begin to shift later in middle school.

The additional buses on the road — caused by starting one of the elementary schools at the same time as the high school — could also lead to traffic congestion, he said. The scenario would also shave off 10 minutes from the end of the day at the high school, and either Scotland or Barlow Mountain.

“That’s to accommodate a longer period of time — 40 minutes — between the tiers,” Miller explained.

But by shifting back to a three-tier busing model, Miller said the second plan could net more savings for the district in the long run — even though it carries a price tag in the beginning.

Board member Tracey O’Connor raised concerns that that plan would see younger elementary students arriving at home before their older middle school siblings, which could cause problems for parents who rely on the older kids to provide babysitting for a few hours.

Miller said that might be an opportunity for organizations outside the schools —  the Boys & Girls Club, Parks and Recreation, the library — to step in with after-school programs to bridge the gap.

“A lot of towns do [those programs] right now, even before they changed start times,” Miller said.

“They won’t be free,” O’Connor countered.

Number crunching

No matter how the district works the numbers, it simply can’t deliver all of its students — nearly 5,000 at last count — to school within a 90-minute window, Walton said. At least not without increasing the budget by almost $2 million.  

“The problem is we only have one road in and one road out — Route 102 and Route 35,” said board member Tracy O’Connor. “Other towns don’t have that problem, right?”

“And it’s also the distribution of the schools,” Walton said, “because sometimes you’re lucky and you have more campuses, and we don’t. In fact, there are only four schools that are on campuses — Scotts Ridge, the high school, and Barlow and Scotland.”   

Scenario A — saves $180,000

Branchville, Barlow Mountain, Ridgebury 7:35 - 2:25
Farmingville, Scotland, Veterans Park 8:00 - 2:50
High school 8:35 - 3:25
East Ridge and Scotts Ridge 9:10 - 4:00

Scenario B — costs $360,000

East Ridge and Scotts Ridge 7:40 - 2:30
High school and one elementary school (Scotland or Barlow Mountain) 8:30 - 3:10
Remaining five elementary schools 9:10 - 3:50


The big question that still remains unanswered is how it will impact sports at the high school.

Miller said athletic director Dane Street is working “to analyze the impact on high school athletics by the change of start times to a 3:25 end time. This is dependent upon the final set of times. If we end at 3:15, or 3:25, or 3:35, or 3:05 — all that impacts the work that he’s doing.”

With the day ending an hour later due to a later opening bell, many parents have raised concerns over the plan’s impact on sports.

Miller pointed out that the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education recently put out a statement on start times, asking that the state’s Department of Education conduct “a full-scale analysis” of moving to later start times.

That study will look at busing and inter-district athletics. It will also ask the Department of Education to present a recommendation on adopting a later start time.

Street said there are still “a lot of questions” around the impact later start times would have on the athletics department.

“From pay-to-participate to rental revenues — just about every piece of my budget becomes a big question mark,” Street said, “because we have no way to project whether a kid who plays this year, and next year in 2018-19, is going to play the following year.”