Start times to homework: Candidates discuss school concerns
School start times, homework policy, spending, technology — discussing a broad range of issues, Board of Education candidates shared their views at a League of Women Voters forum that drew an audience of more than 100 to the Ridgefield library Tuesday night, Oct. 3.
They got right to it, with the first of the questions a request for each candidate’s views on the yearlong discussion about “healthy” — meaning not so early — start times.
“This has been a hotly debated issue,” said David Cordisco, an incumbent Republican. “I believe it’s urgent that we address school start times. …
“Nine to nine and a half hours of sleep is required for adolescents,” Cordisco said.
“I support healthy start times for all children,” said Carine Borgia-Drake, a Democrat. “We have a responsibility to not harm our children. We must implement healthy start times!”
Margaret Stamatis, a Democratic incumbent, said the start times issue was a question worth consideration “because of medical evidence,” but added that it was a “complex” discussion touching issues that ranged from the budget and busing to the effects of changing start times on other organizations.
“There are trade-offs,” she said.
“Changing start start times is not a magic pill. We have to take a holistic view.”
“I think we should have healthy start times for all,” said Kaitlyn Hayes, a Republican.
But she, too, saw complications.
“With a four-tier bus system, someone has to start at 7:30,” she said.
There would be practical issues if younger students went to school before older ones.
“Parents rely on high schoolers for baby-sitting,” she said.
Doug Silver, an incumbent Democrat, said that when first elected to the board a couple of years ago, he pushed with other board members to take up the issue.
But he portrayed healthy start times less as a for-or-against question and more as a matter of working out the practical difficulties.
“Doing it wrong is doing it unsuccessfully,” he said. “How we implement it, that should be the decider.”
Democrat Kathleen Holz said the transition would involve a lot.
“All students have needs. All families have needs. Money has to be spent,” she said.
But she supported it. “We do need to change start times,” she said. “Change is difficult.”
“Our role is: What’s important for the kids,” said Republican Scott Preston. “School start time should be later.”
With a $92.6-million school budget that represents 72% of the town spending, what size budget would candidates like to see for next year and in what areas would they seek to increase or decrease spending?
Candidates seemed to agree that wasn’t a question they could answer too specifically.
Borgia-Drake praised the job done by the Democratic majority on the Board of Finance.
“Budgeting for the Ridgefield schools … is whole and sound,” she said.
Stamatis noted that the town and schools had been legally required to keep under a 2.5% spending cap for the current year.
“I believe we should find efficiencies in areas that don’t directly impact students,” she said.
“Education is an economic driver of Ridgefield, and we need to keep schools strong.”
Hayes said, “In special education, we need make sure we meet the needs of our students.”
She added, “If we were to maximize the value of every tax dollar spent, we’d find we have a greater surplus at year-end.”
“This is going to be a difficult time,” Silver said. It will require a lot of “collaboration and cooperation” among town officials.
“I do have faith in the Board of Finance,” Silver said.
Holz said the school board’s “main job” was to look at all expenditures carefully and keep the school finances sound.
“We also have to assure that each child’s needs are met,” she said.
Preston had a ready answer: “P for Preston stands for protect your pocketbook,” he said.
“The state is in a level of crisis,” he added. “I’m a business leader who’s managed budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m used to making the tough decisions.”
Cordisco said that serving on the school board’s finance subcommittee he’d learned some lessons.
“It’s important we develop a budget that’s accepted by the town,” he said.
“This year school start times may have an impact,” he said.
“We want to make the best decision for students and the community, and sometimes that comes with an increase.”
Candidates were asked for their views of the school system’s “digital initiative” and the distribution of Chromebook laptop computers to middle school students.
With a student in middle school, Stamatis said, she’d been impressed.
“That classroom experience really was enhanced by the teachers’ utilization of that Chromebook,” she said.
“I do believe we need some professional development for teachers,” she added, and “parents need to educate themselves” to help students take best advantage of the laptops.
“I think technology is wonderful,” said Hayes.
But she said there were concerns with students having laptops at home.
“It can disrupt melatonin levels, it can disrupt sleep,” she said.
Technology is something she felt students needed to be educated about.
“I support it,” she said. “I’d like to see technology at all levels.”
Silver said the success of technology in education would depend on teachers knowing how to take advantage of it, use it effectively.
“A chromebook is a device, it’s not a solution,” Silver said.
With the Internet available to provide facts, teaching and learning need to change — and teachers should be given professional development.
“The questions you ask have to become deeper,” he said. “They have to become more complex.”
Holz said the ways to use technology would vary.
“We have to look at different developmental needs of students,” she said.
Computers could be a “wonderful” tool in high school, and useful in middle school — but she thought technology in elementary school had to be handled carefully.
“We do not put technology in the hands of elementary school students and let them take it home,” she said. “We train teachers that it has to be highly managed in collaboration with families.”
“People understand what’s the value of the tool,” Preston said “Technology is an enabler.
“If there’s a budget challenge,” he added, “do we put money into technology, or something else?”
He favored use of Chromebooks at the high school as well as the middle school.
Cordisco posed a question.
“How do we evolve our teaching environment to meet the changing needs of all our students?” he said.
Technology, he suggested, can be part of the answer.
“I think we should expand Chromebooks to the high school,” he said.
Borgia-Drake broadly supported technology education as needed to prepare kids for today’s world.
“It’s a language our students are required to know,” she said.
“It’s an absolute skill and a necessity.”
Candidates were asked for their thoughts on homework levels for students.
“At the elementary level, children should be free to play,” said Hayes. “Your EQ is almost as important as your IQ.”
Middle schoolers can do more homework — 20 minutes per subject.
High school students may be asked to do too much, she thought, and she suggested a “homework policy” designed to allow high schoolers to stop doing homework at 10:30.
Silver said he’s on the board’s policy committee, and believes it’s important for the board to understand that its role was to set general policy, not micromanage something like homework.
“I am worried we’d find a push at the board level to start mandating a number of hours,” he said.
But he did feel the board should tell the administration and teachers that homework levels should be kept sensible, with an eye to students’ health.
“This homework policy goes hand in hand with school start times,” he said.
Holz said, “I agree children’s work is play — especially the youngest children.
“First, second, third grade — homework has no role.” she said.
In middle school, “they need to be trained how to do homework well,” she said.
“High school, we need to have curriculum innovations,” she said. “Have homework that sets them up for policy debates the next day.”
“Homework should be about skills development,” Preston said.
“Too many teachers provide too much homework that has zero meaning for today.”
Cordisco felt homework has value — ”but it has to be the right homework.”
The amount of homework is important, he said.
“We need feedback from teachers: What’s the right amount of homework?” he said.
Borgia-Drake said homework levels are a concern, particularly in the high school.
“We have to make sure we’re attentive to mental health needs,” she said.
Stamatis shared the concerns about micromanaging that Silver had outlined.
“I agree with the policy committee on the Board of Education,” she said.
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story has been corrected. A quotation attributed to Kaitlyn Hayes was incorrect. The original article reported that she said: "Someone has to wake up at 7:30." Actually she said: "With a four-tier busing system someone has to start at 7:30." The original article also misspelled her name. It's Kaitlyn, not Kaitlin.)