Ridgefield High School students will get an extra hour to sleep in — they’ll just have to wait another year.

The Board of Education unanimously voted Monday night to change the district’s start times beginning in the fall of 2019.

The vote raised more than a few eyebrows in the audience of about 50 residents. The results of a district-wide survey published last week largely suggested that parents and students were not on board with a later start time.

The decision caps off a debate that started more than a year ago, when Gigi Christel and Colleen Broderick founded Ridgefield’s chapter of Start School Later and first petitioned the board to consider pushing start times back in September 2016.

While some members of the board expressed disappointment at having to wait a year to implement the change, most seemed pleased with the result.

“I’ve been involved in educational policy for 10 years now,” said board Chairwoman Fran Walton, “and I’ve never seen a later start time proposal come to a vote.”

Waiting to implement

The pushback from the community survey resonated to some degree.

Superintendent Karen Baldwin recommended the board not go forward with approving any change for the 2018-19 school year, which was originally planned.

“We don’t have a scenario that suits our needs,” Baldwin told The Press, shortly after the meeting. “So I think that 2019 was necessary to have a start time that is implementable.”

The extra year will give the district time to revise and review some of the unknowns in the plan.

In her recommendation, Baldwin cited such concerns as traffic, changes in the number of students who ride the bus or catch a ride with a parent, and the impact the plan will have on athletics.

“We need to put all of this in place and vet it, and be accountable to it,” Baldwin said.

Busing and savings

The board said it would review “Option 1C,” a busing scenario developed by Missouri-based School Bus Consultants that could save the district up to $90,000 by using one less bus. In that scenario, the schools would run as follows:

  • Middle schools: 7:55 a.m. - 2:45 p.m.
  • High school: 8:30 a.m. - 3:20 p.m.
  • Branchville, Ridgebury, Scotland: 8:50 a.m. - 3:40 p.m.
  • Barlow Mountain, Farmingville, Veterans Park: 9:15 a.m. - 4:05 p.m.

Board members were quick to point out that consultants have projected a savings in what they view as a “best-case scenario.”

“I did hear a comment while I was out the other day — ‘Oh, you’re changing school start times to save money,’” Walton said.

She told the room that wouldn’t be the case.

“I’m not convinced that we’re going to see that savings of $90,000,” board member David Cordisco said.

He added that any savings might be absorbed by unforeseen costs, such as having to add additional buses, as Greenwich schools discovered when they changed their start times.

Board member Margaret Stamatis said there would be non-material costs as well — not just in terms of dollars and cents but in the personal cost to families who will have to adjust schedules to meet the new start times.

“We need to explore strategies with elementary school families,” for whom, Stamatis said, “child care options” might be a necessity.

Board member Doug Silver added that teachers would be affected, too.

“If we do not recognize that teachers need a chance to adjust to this, then we do them a disservice,” he said.

Election

Of course, board members were also aware that the vote was taking place two weeks before Election Day.

When town residents go to the ballot box on Nov. 7, board members Silver, Cordisco, Stamatis, and Sharon D’Orso will all be up for re-election.

“Frankly, I think the school start time issue will be on the minds of voters as they vote,” said Silver in an email. “Some will want stability in the BOE to ensure that the commitment we made last night holds.

“Others may view it differently.”

He said he hopes the decision will not be the only “litmus test” voters use to judge him.

“That would be unfortunate, given how many issues the BOE has faced in the last two years and the progress we have made,” he said.

Community response

Responses to the decision were passionate on both sides.

On social media, some residents argued against later start times — claiming it would impact students’ ability to complete homework or to participate in sports. Several commenters suggested the process had been pushed through by a small minority, without consideration for the results of the survey.

Supporters of the later start times also expressed some disappointment at the decision.

“We are pleased that the Ridgefield Public Schools will implement healthy start times, but are disappointed that the Board of Education decided to delay implementation for another year,” said Broderick. “Students need relief now.”

The group notes that medical groups largely support the change — later start times were endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics back in 2014, as a way of combating adolescent sleep deprivation.

Happy or not, board members say they made the decision knowing it would win them both praise and resentment.

“No matter what,” said Stamatis, “there are those who will say that we got it right, and those who say we got it wrong.”