Start times talk looms loud at budget hearing
Lobbying for later school start times joined a wide range of concerns — science curriculum, special education spending, a possible school closing — as speakers at Saturday’s public hearing reacted to Superintendent Karen Baldwin’s $93.5-million budget request, which would increase school spending by 3.48% in 2017-18.
“Every day we delay in implementing better start times we are hurting our children’s brains forever,” Gigi Christel told the board, speaking first and making a point echoed by three later speakers. “...What’s holding you back from having healthier start times for 2017-18?”
Ten people spoke at the hearing, with two directly in support of the budget and five more seemingly in support discussing a variety concerns.
One speaker criticized the spending level requested, complaining that one of the six elementary school should be closed.
Both the budget and the start times issue are on the agenda of the next school board meeting Monday night, Feb. 27, which starts at 7 with another of the budget hearing in the school board room at the town hall annex.
Baldwin said one of the difficulties of re-arranging start times is that the costs aren’t known yet. Consultants from Educational Logistics are studying the issue, she said, to determine how it might affect the transportation budget.
The budget request is for $93,517,544, up just over $3,143,000 from the current year’s more than $90,374,000 budget.
The budget proposal manages to stay within the state-mandated 2.5% cap on spending increases — despite rising 3.48% — because special education spending is excluded from the cap calculation. The proposed budget allocates nearly $14,451,000 for special education, a $1,213,000 or 9.22% increase from this year.
“In total one if five of our students has some kind of Individualized Education Plan,” Baldwin said. (An individual education plan or “IEP” is given to a student with some kind of special need, whether intellectual, physical or emotional.
In an effort to keep within the 2.5% cap, Baldwin’s budget proposes eliminating what adds up to 7.45 full time positions: one is an administrator, a K-12 “STEM” supervisor in science, technology, engineering and math; 1.55 are RHS teaching positions; 3 middle school teachers would be eliminated by changing East Ridge’s sixth grade from three to two “teams”; one is a K-5 technology integrator; a 0.80 position is for middle school special education department chairmen; and a 0.10 position for a pre-school coordinator.
Overall, the budget would fund what adds up to more than 718 full time positions — 448 teachers, 27 administrator's, 35 secretaires, 118 paraprofessionals, 53 custodians, 22 nurses and therapists, 10 technology workers, five operations managers. There are actually more people working for the schools — that’s with part timers collapsed into “full time equivalents” or FTEs.
“I support the budget,” said Kevin Clarkin, and he thanked the educators for their decision making.
Amanda Mason supported the budget with enthusiasm.
“Our teachers are the lifeblood of our schools,” she said.
She also backed the $14,4 million in spending dictated by state and federal special education laws.
“We have a legal obligation, and a moral obligation, to educate all learners,” Mason said.
“How we treat the most vulnerable among us ... that is how we can judge ourselves as a community,” she added.
Close a school?
Steve Cole, who has long advocated for less school spending, raised the issue of closing one of the six elementary schools.
“Meetings upon meetings, consultants upon consultants!” he said. “We’ve been talking about closing a school for eight years.”
He recalled that a past school board had told the finance board that when K-5 enrollment falls below 2,000 students, and some other conditions were met, a school could be closed.
“Six years ago a commitment was made to the Board of Finance to close a school,” he said. But the school board and administration seemed committed only to “delay” in the hope enrollment would start rising again and the highly emotional process could be avoided altogether.
“We’re talking about leaving money on the table,” Cole said, “and we cannot continue to do that.”
Stephanie Sanderson disagreed.
“Closing a school? I believe a capacity study has discussed that question,” she said. “There’s no financial gain in doing that.”
Suzanne Chester said she had a fourth grader and a seventh grader — and a long history of backing school budget priorities.
“I am an undecided voters,” she told the school board.
She’s worried science education is being short-changed.
“For three years the elementary schools have been told science curriculum would be addressed,” she said.
Two years ago, the “river study” program was stopped, with promises it would be replaced.
“Yet, again, we are neglecting science at the elementary level,” she said.
Sonya Singh-Smith, the parent of a seventh grader, was worried about plans to move to a 50-50 enrollment split between the larger East Ridge Middle School and the considerably smaller Scotts Ridge Middle School building.
The plan has all sixth graders coming out of Farmingville, Veterans Park and Branchville going to East Ridge, while all students from Ridgebury, Barlow Mountain and Scotland would to go to Scotts Ridge — previously, some Scotland and Barlow kids would go to East Ridge. This has the benefit of keeping those kids together as they transition to middle school. It also accomplishes “efficiencies” — the reduction of three teaching positions — by eliminating one of the three sixth grade teams at East Ridge, so both middle schools are two-team schools.
Singh-Smith, who also two kids who have gone through the schools and graduated, was worried the planning was too tight.
How could “class overages” be accommodated? What about school psychologists?
“I’ve lived through large class sizes,” she said.
But many people wanted to talk about start times.
Currently, the high school goes from 7:25 to 2:15; middle schools 8 to 2:25; and elementary schools either 8:35 to 3:25 or 9:10 to 4.
Christel, the parent who spoke first on start times, pointed to the Project Resilience initiative on sleep and recommended people go to PTA website and watch a video in which three doctors say lack of sleep can negatively affect brain growth.
She ran through some other spending priorities — curriculum development, the DARE anti-drug program (which she said was proven to be ineffective) — and then asked: “Is that more important than the health and brain development of our children?”
Steve Cole, the veteran spending critic, challenged Christel’s argument for earlier start times — though he didn’t disagree with her view of sleep’s importance.
“Put a child to bed at 10:30 and get up at 6 and they’ll have 7 and a half hours,” he argued.
“...Put the machines, put the devices, put the phones, put the games on the kitchen table, and give them back to the child in the morning.” he said.
“I’m not disagreeing children need sleep, it’s just it needs to be managed at the front end.”
Eliza Libbart was supportive of the board.
“That you for all you guys do,” she said. “We’re on a good path.”
But she, too, had concerns about start times.
“It really does affect learning,” she said.
And some elementary school kids get out as late as 4 p.m.
“They don’t get any sunlight, They come home in the dark,” she said.
Libbart wondered if the elementary kids might be “flipped” with the high school kids, who many people fear with suffer health consequences from being forced to get up too early in teenage years.
“I don’t know if switching those two groups is appropriate,” she said.
Meredith Harris worried about sleep and brain development.
“Brains of teens shrink with early start times,” she said.
“This is a huge issue. There are a lot of people watching. Do something about this.”