BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan board of education is still heavily debating the idea of changing school starting times in the near future.
Superintendent Russell Lazovick said the district is following a process, including the recent transportation study that outlined several different bus schedule options in conjunction with changing start times. He said the goal now was to “take as many options off the table as possible.”
Lazovick added that he had spoken with staff members at Bridgewater-Raritan High School about changing start times, which he said had been an “interesting conversation” that had not reached any sort of consensus, although educators seemed glad the conversation was happening.
“No one was against the change,” he said.
Lazovick also said he had met with almost all the other superintendents and athletic directors in Somerset County.
“There’s some significant challenges,” he said.
He added that it had been discussed that “athletics was not a reason not to move forward,” and that sports and extracurricular activities could continue successfully should school starting times be pushed back.
Board member A.J. Joshi said that courtesy busing “eats up time,” and added that minutes could be shaved off bus routes by utilizing group meeting spots. Board president Jill Gladstone agreed.
“I’ve seen it myself,” she said. “The bus stops, and stops, and stops.”
Parent Jessica Levitt, who has long championed the push to change school start times in the district as a health precaution, said she intends to continue until something is done. She said she and other parents support Option 5, the least expensive of the transportation options and which flips the schedules for the intermediate and primary schools, as the best one.
Levitt also said that delays in initiating new start times would be harmful. She said it is important to do it right, but she hopes to hear a recommendation from the superintendent, and wonders when the board will vote on the matter.
“January would still allow eight months to work out the specifics,” she said, with an eye toward implementing the new schedules for the 2020-2021 school year.
Former board member Jeffery Brookner said the board will have one opportunity to initiate new starting times as a district, and he also asked his former colleagues to “do it right.”
Board member Steven Singer said he “doesn’t want kids coming home at 5 p.m.” due to pushed-back starting times. He said parents are already dealing with early start times, as are his own children, whom he added don’t have other options.
He said his daughter doesn’t always eat in the mornings, is tired during the day and has even taken a nap of two to three hours on the day of the board meeting.
“Something needs to be done,” he said.
He later said the board could only control those things it actually has control over, not things like the times that students go to bed.
“I’m not convinced (these) options are best for us,” he said.
Board member Ann Marie Mead asked about changing the high school start time only, and asked if anyone had examined that alternative. Lazovick said that it is physically possible to do anything, although it is hoped to keep the high school in the 8:05 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. starting range, as going later could possibly disrupt the buses.
Mead said that tweaking the schedules would result in primary school students going to school “too early,” and said she feels they are too young to get up that early. Board vice president Jackie Barlow said she personally prefers Option 5, which she said is also inexpensive and shaves time off bus routes so that primary school students don’t have to go in so early, or spend a long time on the bus.
“It’s wasted time,” she said of the latter.
Mead asked how the district would get $500,000 to pay for additional buses to aid in the change.
“There’s no money in the budget,” she said. “How are we going to pay for it?”
Lazovick said start times is a health issue, and that funds could be moved from facilities allocations the next three years, along with the capital reserve. He said the district is able to live within its budget, and handle issues like this.
Board member Lynne Hurley said the high school schedule should be changed before changing bus schedules, to “revolve busing around a schedule best for the students.” She said she would also consider allowing all students to opt out of their first period classes and use that time as a study hall instead.
Board member Barry Walker said he doesn’t know what the average bus time to get to school is, but feels the goal should be to get routes down to a 30-minute maximum. He said he also likes Option 5, which optimizes routes.
Singer asked about changing the length of the school day in the middle and high schools, and Lazovick said they are pretty standard at all levels, although facilities is also an issue.
“The likelihood scheduling will effect start times is small,” said Lazovick, while still projecting high school as using a seven-hour day.
In terms of what time to start classes, Lazovick said the general consensus in the district is to move to an 8 a.m. start time, although he said he can’t guarantee the district would continue to be able to get bus drivers, in-house or contractual, which he added is a competition in itself.
“That’s the real issue,” he said.
He also said that other districts in America that have moved their school starting times are not necessarily as compressed as New Jersey with regard to traffic. He explained that students traveling to athletic and other competitions will likely get caught in rush hour traffic on I-287, the New Jersey Turnpike and other major highways if school start times are pushed back.
“The later we push high school (back), the more likely it is to happen,” said Lazovick, who also said there would be issues with local rec teams, and with facilities the district doesn’t own, such as ice hockey at Bridgewater Sports Arena.
There are also concerns that staff, such as primary school teachers, might not be able to get to work on time in the mornings if start times change.
Lazovick said the district needs to play a greater leadership role in the county, as the whole county working together could develop a specific model, and then bring the start times matter to the state. He added that if the district want to introduce new starting times in September 2020, then the board likely has to make its decision by the end of January.
“There’s no easy solution,” said Lazovick.
He said that Option 3 (to tier the high school buses with the primary schools, and the middle school with the intermediate schools) would be the “least egregious to staff,” although it would most impact the primary schools. He said that could be discussed at the board’s retreat next month, along with childcare and aftercare issues.
Lazovick also said that doctors are telling educators that (too) early starting times is unhealthy, and that the board and district are trying to fix things. He said he also appreciated student input on the matter.
Not everyone was convinced the board should go ahead and make a decision.
“I struggle to understand what the rush is,” said Mead, who added she wouldn’t vote to change start times for the upcoming school year.
She cited that only 12 percent of students responded to surveys sent out on the matter, with only 6 percent saying there was a problem.
“I’m not convinced that after-school activities won’t be affected,” added Mead, who also believes that everything would get pushed back.
Mead added that the conversation began a year ago, and she feels other issues continue to be the mental health and wellness of students.
Mead also asked why the board didn’t just vote on the issue, and Joshi replied that students want later start times, per surveys, and that the board has also done community outreach.
“I don’t think we’re rushing it,” said Joshi.
Lazovick said a student forum on the start times matter is scheduled for next month, so that student voices can be heard. Gladstone said talks could be re-opened at the board’s re-organization next month, while a vote could also be taken in January.
“To vote now is a little premature,” she said.