2016-04-07 / News

Regional school vote to address delayed starts

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/SACO/OLD ORCHARD BEACH/DAYTON — An unprecedented regional school vote, including three municipal school boards, was scheduled as of the Courier’s deadline to take place, at which the school boards of Biddeford, Dayton and Saco were planning to entertain motions to approve delaying the start times of sixth- to 12th-graders’ school days to 8:30 a.m. next year.

The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, April 6 at the Pepperell Square Conference Room at Pepperell Center on Main Street in Biddeford, with public input beginning at 6:30 p.m. and Saco Mayor Ron Michaud presiding over a joint meeting of the boards at 7 p.m.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard was also scheduled to be present, but the academy’s board of trustees would have to take a separate vote later if it wanted to change the school’s start time. Thornton Academy is a private high school where Saco and Dayton send their students.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said school districts in the region have been working collaboratively in an attempt to align their high school start times together, but the joint meeting of the school boards is a first.

“It’s a chance to celebrate that we have three towns and Thornton Academy all working on a change together,” Ray said.

Ray said the boards will make their own motions and vote separately, on whether to change the start times for middle and high school students to 8:30 a.m. Ray said the Pepperell Center was chosen as a site for the meeting to preserve a neutral atmosphere.

Ray said Biddeford schools have been communicating with other school districts about start times because if Biddeford Regional Center of Technology’s start time is changed, it would affect all the districts that send students there – Saco, Dayton, Regional School Unit 23 in Old Orchard Beach and RSU 21, which comprises Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.

“Old Orchard Beach was going to be a part of this but felt like they wanted to have another public meeting first,” Ray said. “They need a little more time, they currently start later than we do – but the plan is to make things work.”

Ray said, “There’s a lot up in the air with what’s going on in RSU 21,” with Arundel beginning a process to withdraw from the regional school unit.

Regardless, Ray said it was important to make a decision early on start times for next year, so that other school districts can prepare accordingly for their students who will attend Biddeford Regional Center of Technology.

“They have all been a part of this and know where we stand,” Ray said.

The start times of 8:30 a.m. are in accordance with the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatricians, Ray said.

Saco Superintendent Dominic DePatsy said the school boards will each make their own motion, tailored to their own district.

For example, since Saco sends its high school students to Thornton Academy, the Saco School Board only has the jurisdiction to set the start time for Saco Middle School.

So while the Biddeford School Committee will be voting to establish start times for Biddeford’s middle and high schools, Saco’s motion will only be voting to set the start time for Saco Middle School.

The Dayton School Committee sends all of its middle and high school students to other towns, so it would be voting conceptually to support the start times, DePatsy added.

“I’ve been an administrator for 17 years and I have never seen this type of collaboration, which just shows how well we’re all working together regionally,” DePatsy said. “We all try to help each other.”

DePatsy said Menard, of Thornton Academy has been at the table during the whole process as Saco has worked with Biddeford, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach to align start times.

“Since Thornton Academy educates students from multiple sending communities, we will make every effort to work collaboratively with those communities to create a similar start of school time,” Menard said.

Lloyd Crocker, superintendent of RSU 23 in Old Orchard Beach, said the district recently changed the middle and high school start times from 7:30 a.m. last year to 8 a.m. this year. To change it again, Crocker said the school board wants to have more engagement and input from the public.

Crocker said a Saco chapter of Start School Later gave a presentation to the board and “made a compelling argument for this as being a real health issue.”

Crocker said staff and parents have been surveyed and the information will be presented to the RSU 23 School Board on Thursday, April 7.

“The board feels like they want to really provide the community with an opportunity to weigh in with the board,” Crocker said. “I feel pretty confident that we would be ready (to change the start time) … but we just want to make sure it makes good sense.”

Crocker said parents in Old Orchard Beach aren’t necessarily concerned with moving high and middle school start times from 8 to 8:30 a.m., but are concerned about moving the elementary school start time from 8:30 to 8 a.m.

Crocker said the regional school unit will likely follow up with its own vote on start times within a few weeks.

“Biddeford, having the vocational center, it would affect us as well,” Crocker said. “However, we could accommodate students if we’re not on the same start time.”

As of the Courier’s deadline, the meeting had not yet occurred and outcome of the votes unknown.

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