Schools consider ‘pause’ on start times

With an interim superintendent and business manager at the helm of a budget-strapped district, is now the best time for Ridgefield to go forward with starting the high school later?

That was the question facing the Board of Education Monday night after it heard from 24 residents, most of whom spoke against implementing later start times for the 2019-20 school year.

“Realizing there is a lot of work, is this time to perhaps take a pause until we have leadership in place?” asked board secretary Margaret Stamatis.

“We’re in what we thought was a 24-month project, but this may be a 34-month project,” said board member Jonathan Steckler.

He wondered when, or if, the board would vote to postpone the project — a decision that was left open-ended Monday night.

“I think it will continue to be a topic of conversation,” said board Chairwoman Fran Walton Tuesday when asked about possibly delaying implementation of later start times. “Nobody wanted to change anything, from what I heard at the discussion.

“We’re focusing on passing the budget, getting a new business manager and superintendent.”

A few speakers said Monday that if the district continues with the project for the 2019-20 school year, they plan to vote ‘no’ on the 2018-19 school budget when it goes to referendum in May.

“I think some of us feel that that is our only recourse,” said Nutmeg Ridge resident Jared Miles. “If you don’t stop the train right now, the only option is to vote against the budget.”

But others rejected that brinkmanship.

“I worry what happens if people vote that down,” said Barrack Hill resident and Board of Finance member Sean Connolly. “If you vote down the budget, that blows everything up.”

Walton agreed.

“There’s very little in this budget related to start times,” she told The Press Tuesday.

Screens and sports

Many of the parents opposed to later start times pointed to the impact on sports programs, with student athletes losing anywhere from two to eight classroom hours a week to make games in the winter and spring.

Others, including Peaceable Street resident Sean McEvoy, suggested sleep could be improved by reducing screen time before bed and adjusting the district’s homework policy.

Dr. Robert Miller, the project’s director and the district’s acting superintendent, said starting school later would improve student health and academic performance.

“The research does show that when students do get adequate sleep, academic success does follow,” said Miller.

“If your doctor told you that you need to take a multivitamin a few times a day for the rest of your life and it was going to cost you a few cents a day for the rest of your life, that’s essentially what we’re asking right now.”

He said the project was looking into the effect screen use has on sleep, and how devices could be programmed to shut off the projected blue light that researchers say triggers the brain to stay awake.

“Screen time is also critical, linked to the homework policy, as well as the blue light,” Miller said.

Wearing too many hats

The main concerns board members expressed about the project were the lack of a permanent superintendent and district business manager.

Miller, who is also the district’s technology director, replaced former Superintendent Karen Baldwin last month.

Business manager Paul Hendrickson retired at the end of December. The district hired Allan Cameron, who formerly worked for the Shelton Public School District, in January to serve as an interim business manager.

“That’s the issue for me, the staff,” said board member Sharon D’Orso. “We really need to get a key person in place. … Our administrative position has changed.”

Board member Jim Keidel asked if someone else could take on steering the start times project going forward.

“Rob, are you still working on this?” Keidel asked Miller, who he said has essentially “worn multiple hats” as acting superintendent, technology director, and start times project manager for months.

“Not as much as I was before,” Miller admitted, adding that he’s delegated some of the start times project to his staff.

He acknowledged the backlash from parents against the project.

“What we heard tonight is a lack of awareness and an insufficient job in explaining why this change is needed.”

‘The biggest roadblock’

Several board members said they were uncomfortable with start time “Scenario A” that would maintain the district’s four-tier bus system and 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, the high school would start at 8:30 a.m. 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.

“We know the four-tier system is not going to work,” said board member Katherine Holz, who  joined the board after it voted in October 2017 to pursue later school start times.

She said she didn’t think a plan to implement a three-tier bus system had been “exhausted” yet.

“I think with the four tiers … it’s just rearranging chairs on the deck,” Holz told the board.

“Scenario B,” a three-tier bus option in which both middle schools start first at 7:40 a.m. and the high school at 8:30, would increase transportation costs as much as $360,000.

“If we go back to a three-tier, there will be an increase in cost,” said Walton.

“It’s not for this [year’s] budget,” she explained.

Miller called the cost of going to three tiers the “big roadblock” moving forward.

Board member Carina Borgia-Drake said she was worried about the board’s credibility if the project stalled.

“The board voted in October … we table it when things get hard? How do we go forward with credibility?” she said. “I’m concerned about that.”