West Hartford Board of Education Chair Carol Blanks read a statement at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, and said that a change in school start times will not be on the table.
By Ronni Newton
An option for changing the start times of West Hartford’s public schools, which was tabled after an emotional and contentious meeting on Nov. 20, 2019, has been removed from consideration and the school schedule will remain as is, Board of Education Chair Carol Blanks said during Tuesday night’s meeting.
“After much discussion it appears that option 2 is not suitable for most students and families,” Blanks said. She thanked the Rethinking School Start Times Committee and district leaders for their work on the issue, which began with the committee’s formation in 2017. Research was conducted and four reports were made to the Board during the 2017-18 academic year.
“Yes, the science is clear that the proposed later start time for high school students is. most beneficial for their mental and physical health. However, we are aware of the several challenges of several issues of the proposed solution,” Blanks said Tuesday.
Specific challenges include the impact on middle school students and their families due to a start time that would be 20 minutes earlier, and even a proposed elementary school start time that was five minutes later could be problematic, Blanks said.
At its Oct. 17 meeting, after several hours of discussion, the Board ruled out two other proposed options that had been under consideration, and decided that it would vote on Nov. 20 between option no. 2 or leaving school start times unchanged.
Option no. 2 would delay the start and end times of high schools by 40 minutes (8:10 a.m.-2:55 p.m on Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday as compared to the current 7:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m.), start and end middle schools 20 minutes earlier (7:40 a.m-2:30 p.m. as compared to the current 8 a.m.-2:50 p.m.), and start and end elementary schools 10 minutes later (8:45 a.m.-3:30 p.m. as compared to 8:35 a.m.-3:20 p.m.). Wednesday end times under option no. 2 would be 1:30 p.m., 1:10 p.m., and 2:10 p.m. for high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools respectively.
Blanks said Tuesday that the Board “has learned through further analysis that the cost of transportation and bus runs can exceed $2 million if both the high school and middle school began at 8:15 a.m.” as some urged them to consider.
“Questions were also raised around early dismissals for student athletes and other activities. How will sports that use town facilities be impacted? What type of impact will this have on critical learning and meeting new state requirements for school graduation?” Blanks said Tuesday.
Graduation requirements have changed based on state law, beginning with this fall’s incoming ninth-graders who must complete 25 credits – up from 21.75 – and spread them out differently among disciplines.
“Academics are this Board’s first and foremost concern for the students in this district,” Blanks said. “These are all critical concerns that must be addressed before a decision and vote can go forward.”
Emotions ran high in advance of the Nov. 20 meeting when the vote was scheduled, with hundreds of emails on both sides of the issue submitted to Board members, along with a petition signed by more than 150 in opposition to option no. 2.
More than 1,000 pages of email correspondence between Board of Education members regarding the start time issue were requested and obtained by We-Ha.com under the Freedom of Information Act, amid concern that the process of considering a change in start times was not being conducted in a fair or ethical manner.
Legislative chambers were overflowing at the Nov. 20 meeting with several highly-charged issues under discussion, and Board leadership also transitioned that day, with Blanks taking over as chair.
When the agenda item on start times came up, Blanks said that it would be a mistake to vote that night due to the level of emotion, and it would not best for West Hartford.
She instead made a request to table the action on the school start times proposal, which was approved 5-2 along party lines.
When and if the proposal to change school start times would come back to a vote was “to be determined,” Blanks told We-Ha.com right after that meeting. She said that it would be discussed by the Board, and all options, including modifying the proposal, could be considered, but at the time the Board needed to focus on other issues, including the 2019-2020 budget and changes in graduation requirements.
Over the past several months, proponents of later school start times have made statements during the public comment section of Board meetings.