In early January, Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski recommended that the Board of Education adopt an operating budget for the 2019/20 fiscal year that would increase education spending by $12.8 million. His recommended budget was designed to complete the district’s multi-year strategic operating plan; it would be the last of the “catch up” budgets that, according to the state, have made our schools the number one urban district in Connecticut.
Soon after the Superintendent made his recommendation, the board’s Finance Committee reviewed the budget. We were already aware that the city – Mayor Harry Rilling, the Common Council and the Board of Estimate and Taxation – was not able to fully fund a $12.8 million request. We thus reduced the recommendation by removing goal #7, healthier high school start times, in order to save at least $732,000.
The full Board officially approved the recommendation from the Finance Committee. It was a difficult decision – and perhaps the first of many difficult decisions we will make as budget discussions continue – because every board member strongly backs the need for later start times for our high school students. We view the vote as a deferment until next year’s budget, which might possibly have a silver lining because of the complexity of implementing new start times among our schools.
The science behind the need for later start times for high school students is considered settled; there are a variety of biological issues associated with students of high school age that make the traditional early high school start times counter-productive. Surveys among high school students across the country indicate the number one issue for them is not stress but being tired all the time. There is considerable data on the positive correlation between rising academic achievement and later start times.
Of course, we believe the emotional, mental and physical health of our high school students is always a top priority. But we also believe this type of initiative cannot be rushed; there are a range of logistical and financial factors that need to be carefully worked out, specifically the additional transportation costs, which at this point are not clear. The $732,000 was considered a placeholder based on a preliminary discussion with a bus consultant.
Currently, there is a task force consisting of parents, teachers, principals, administrators, and consultants, with Heidi Keyes as the Board liaison, examining several start-time scenarios, each with a different cost. The task force is working on a survey and will convene focus groups. It also plans to convene a forum for high school students. The task force still has a lot of work to do and needs to do a thorough job.
After the task force makes an official recommendation, the full Board will consider the initiative and make a final decision. We believe it would be premature to allocate funds for the healthy start initiative before the task force concludes it work.
Crafting operating budgets sometimes requires board members to defer initiatives that will improve our schools. When the Finance Committee recommended deferring the start time proposal, we were aware that any new initiatives would probably not survive this year’s budget cycle. Our goal was and still is to preserve and complete already implemented initiatives. We believe waiting a year for the start time change, especially since other districts in the region are still wrestling with it, was something we had to do.
A lot of good things have happened in our schools the last few years. To name a few:
We have transformed Special Education and substantially reduced what had been skyrocketing out-of-district tuition costs for our Special Education students; we have increased our high school graduation requirement from 20 to 26 credits, conforming to state recommendations and providing our high school students the ability to compete successfully; we have created remedial intervention programs that have led to higher test scores; we have a new science curriculum; we have implemented a new gifted and talented program and redesigned our middle schools.
Our overall goal in the next few months is to work closely with the city to preserve ongoing initiatives and to figure out ways to implement initiatives that will make our schools second to none in the state.