School start times: Board delays decision, will look at three-tier bus system
The school board might be suffering from start time fatigue after two years of talks.
“If we’re not going to do this, then pull the rug out and stop dithering,” said Vice Chairman Doug Silver at the board’s Oct. 22 meeting.
Silver was frustrated with the board’s decision to once again delay voting on whether or not Ridgefield wanted to go forward with later school start times at the high school — a move that would impact the rest of the district’s eight schools and their respective start times beginning in the 2019-20 school year.
After about 90 minutes of discussion, the board voted to have Interim Superintendent Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfote investigate if a three-tier busing system would make later start times viable. Under the three-tier system, four elementary schools would start at 8 a.m., the high school and remaining two elementary school would start at 8:30, and the two middle schools would start at 9.
Silver seemed supportive of the schedule shift — one that would delay the starting bell at RHS by more than a hour — but challenged the board to make a decision quickly and give the public clarity on a subject that has been kicked around in repetition since September 2016.
“This is just painful to keep doing this,” he said.
He wanted his fellow members to either to proceed with implementation of a three-tier bus system for the 2019-20 school year or scrap the plan for later start times altogether.
“I’ll go on record, I’m fine with this, I think we should go forward next year,” Silver said, favoring the three-tier system.
The board members did not vote to delay the new start time initiative from going into effect for the 2019-20 school year — a move that would have given them more time to investigate the costs associated with switching from a four-tier system to a three-tier system.
Nine people spoke at Monday night’s meeting, and five of them supported delaying the decision another year — or scrapping the plan altogether, as Silver indicated later.
The five who spoke against the initiative argued that the schools should not undertake such a large-scale change while the high school is in the midst of its NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) accreditation, and while the district is still searching for a permanent superintendent.
“Facts can apparently be challenging for folks to accept,” said parent Sean McEvoy, a frequent critic of later start times. “Fact is, both the 2013 and 2018 board surveys showed parents, students, and staff clearly aligned against moving start times.”
He listed 15 further issues he saw with the project, including a “leadership exodus” from the district.
The board is currently searching for a permanent superintendent to replace Paddyfote, a process it hopes to finish in January.
It also recently hired an assistant superintendent and a special services assistant superintendent after both positions were vacated over the summer.
Others voiced their support for a later start.
Susan Lasky, who spoke in support of the project two times previously, said she was surprised “that this is still up for debate.”
“Ridgefield should be a leader in the health and well-being of all of our students,” said Lasky.
Gigi Christel, a longtime advocate for later start times, was more blunt.
She acknowledged that the project still had problems to address, including finding a solution for busing, but said the board is looking for a “Goldilocks solution” when its role “is not to build consensus.”
Like Silver, she was tired of delaying a decision.
“Waiting does not complete any of these tasks,” she said. “Time to get off the fence … and let the staff and community work together for the good of our children.”
Board Chairwoman Fran Walton acknowledged that work on the project has stalled since April. At the time, Dr. Robert Miller, who was tapped to head the later start times project by the board, was also serving as acting superintendent in addition to his regular job as the district technology director.
“We analyzed over 25 scenarios,” Miller told the board. Several of them were never brought forward because they did not meet the district’s time constraints, he said.
Paddyfote pointed out that some of the new bus routes the board tried to shave down for efficiency this year haven’t panned out. The schools had to add a bus back into the fleet that it had cut, she said, to the tune of $90,000 that wasn’t in the budget.
Any new bus plans will have to take into account a “lot of nuances that are really specific to your community,” she said.
Walton said the cost of moving to start times that met the board’s criteria could cost as much as $1.8 million. She suggested the only way to get there might be to make cuts in other areas — a move she wasn’t enthusiastic about, and one she feared the public wouldn’t be too receptive of either.
Board member Jonathan Steckler pointed out that the board’s budget outlook is not likely to change anytime soon.
“If we’re going to wait for a time when money is no object, we’re going to be waiting for a very long time,” he said.