Sag Harbor School District Will Look Into Later Start Times

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By Tessa Raebeck 

In an effort to listen to both concerned parents and tired students, the Sag Harbor Board of Education on Monday announced its goal to review options for a later school day start time.

As part of the board’s visions and goals for the 2014-15 school year, Superintendent Katy Graves announced an ad-hoc start time committee would be created to meet with the superintendent, Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi, Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols, Head Bus Driver Maude Stevens and Athletic Director Donnelly McGovern, and develop multiple plans “of how we can do a later start time for the district.”

The plans are expected to be complete by November 2014, with a December 1 deadline for a report to the board, “which also puts us before our budget cycle,” Ms. Graves said.

The decision comes in light of a national discussion on moving start times for high school students later due to research that finds American students are chronically sleep-deprived and perform better behaviorally and academically when start times are moved past 8 a.m. At the end of August, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the discussion by publishing a report recommending that all high schools start after 8:30 a.m. for students’ health, calling insufficient sleep in adolescents “an important public health issue.”

Research has found that humans’ circadian rhythms change during teenage years, making it close to biologically impossible, according to studies, for high school students to go to bed before 11 p.m. and wake before 8 a.m. Doctors recommend teenagers get at least eight and a half hours of sleep, which some Pierson students and parents say is quite difficult with a start time of 7:26 a.m., which requires some students, particularly those who live farther away or take the bus to school, to wake before 6 a.m.

Although the school board appears to be standing by the science behind later start times, the district will have to contend with athletics and bus schedules in order to make the changes, which proponents say hope will be in effect for the 2015-16 school year.

At Monday’s meeting, the district also announced its intention to “develop and present a plan by June 15, 2015 to share services with other regional school districts and municipalities with a goal of showing a cost saving to the district of two percent of our tax levy,” according to Ms. Graves.

Ms. Graves said the board has already had its first shared services meeting with five school districts in the town of East Hampton and will continue to work with regional districts in order to find ways to cut costs by sharing services such as sports teams and buses.

Another goal the board hopes to tackle this school year is improving district communications, which a survey found was an area of widespread discontent among parents and students.

The board goal, Ms. Graves announced, is to “implement and improve communication strategy to become an engaged and active pathway for school and community through newsletters, work toward a current and active website, continue with emails, phone calls and videotaping [of school board meetings].”

The parties primarily responsible for implementation of that goal are the superintendent, administrators and the “Communications Director,” a position that is not yet filled. The district aims to have a report finalized by December 15, 2014.

A communications committee that met last year had announced in the spring its recommendations that the board fill the position in-house with a full-time staff member, a communications director/specialist who would be dedicated primarily to enhancing communications between teachers and the district and parents and students.

School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi said similar positions in Suffolk County offer a salary of at least $46,500 in addition to health benefits, and more, adding, “There is definitely a significant cost associated with using this model.”

The Southampton School District has a “Community Relations Specialist” who is required to pass the state’s Civil Service test and is part of the district faculty.

Ms. Buscemi said an alternative to the in-house position recommended by the committee would be to use Syntax Communication, a Long Island firm that specializes in public relations for school districts, which the board used last year in a limited capacity.

Ms. Buscemi said for the standard service fee from Syntax, “you’re talking close to $90,000,” but another option “would be to go with someone part-time,” which she said would cost around $37,000.

School Board Vice President Chris Tice, who served on the communications committee, asked how much of what the committee thought was vital to improve communications “will actually get done and continue to be done consistently and well” under the less expensive Syntax package.

Board member Tommy John Schiavoni wondered how well the company would be able to integrate with the faculty and Sag Harbor community.

“I’m not ready to make any decisions on any of this until we get at least a preliminary three to five year [financial] plan,” said board member Sandi Kruel, adding that communications/technology “changes daily” and although it needs to be improved, the board needs to know “where we’re going to come up with that money.”

Ms. Tice said while they need to make a financial decision, she is concerned as to how communications can be immediately improved in the interim.

If the board is to postpone bringing a communications specialist in, she said, “then in the short term we need to figure out how to have increased attention in areas that we are failing at now.”

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