(Part 1 of 2)
Over the past year there has been a lot of discussion, and problems, surrounding the dreaded Attleboro Public School calendars. The main point of contention around a year ago, and then again this past December, has been around the start date, specifically of whether or not it should be before or after Labor Day.
About a year ago this was a main topic presented by the administration during the School Committee meetings, and the Chairman at the time made a recommendation to the other Committee members that we should reach out to the parents of students and pose the two different calendar concepts, something I completely agreed with him on. I actually ended up attending a couple of Parent-Teacher Organization meetings with the Chairman, but it seemed that he and I had very different ideas on how to present this information. See he wanted to explain the two options and then hear the feedback, while I felt it was very important to provide the various and numerous pros and cons associated with each concept in order to enable the parents to have all of the information before providing feedback.
One of the main pros for starting school in August, as presented by the Administration, was how it is possible due to snow storms and such, that the school year would not be over by the end of June and contractually we can’t have school go into July. This would require possible weekend school days, which is something no parent, and especially no student, wants to hear. As many of you could imagine, since this was presented last year towards the end of the winter, due to the severity of the many storms and the amount of school closures, there was much concern in this area.
It was also explained how something like 70% (maybe it was even 80%) of the teachers that provided feedback via a survey on this subject supported the earlier start. In addition, the Department of elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) also highly recommend that Massachusetts public school districts start in August.
And then thirdly, and truthfully mainly, this would give our students three extra full days of instruction prior to them taking the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests.
As far as the concern about snow days and ending school late, I guess my response is that last year was pretty much the worst winter in what, the last 50 or 100 years. If we didn’t end up having problems with ending school in time last year, I honestly don’t see this ever being a problem…
So the truth is, getting past all of the scare tactics and positive spin, this is all about “time on task”, getting three extra days of instruction for the kids prior to them taking the MCAS tests. Would this truly make a difference? I would hope that three days wouldn’t make a difference, but who knows?
But here are some of the issues regarding this change that unfortunately, last year, was not explained very well during our open meetings and which fueled a difficult debate that seemed to upset some members of the School Committee, some parents, some teachers and support staff and the administration…
First and foremost, before we go any farther, and again this was not explained very well last year by either the administration or the former Chairman, is the fact that at this time last year there were two union groups that had a requirement of not starting school prior to September 1st in their contract. In many ways this one issue is a “hold the phone”, “don’t pass go, don’t collect two hundred bucks” problem when it comes to the idea of starting in August. Why the School Committee was even presented calendars by the Superintendent last year in violation of these contracts is a question that I have never heard answered. But the point is that as long as those two contracts had that previously negotaited stipulation, this idea of starting prior to September 1st was moot and never should have become the issue it had.
There were other issues as well regarding this earlier start idea, including the fact that some special education students attend an extended school year. So when school is ending in June for most kids these children continue to attend into August so that they can learn the same curriculum, over an extended period of time. Many of the School Committee members were contacted by some of the families that have children that attend the extended school year and were told that this would negatively impact their very limited summer vacation. Of course when this was presented to the administration as a concern it was met with a response that these students will do better with less of a break between school ending and starting back up, or something to that effect, but at the time, as an elected official representing the citizens, I needed to put more stock in the parents’ concerns when it came to something like this.
Now it is important to explain that one of the union groups who had (and still HAS) the not before September 1st requirement had indicated to the administration a desire to start school in August, indicating the benefits to the students of those extra three days prior to taking MCAS.
Now for this current school year there were two main issues with starting early, which is why we ultimately approved a calendar that started school on September 6th. First we felt that approving a change like this in March, when this was brought to us, would affect some families who had already scheduled their vacation at the end of the summer. And secondly, and most importantly, even though the one union group was willing to possibly make this change, the other union group was not… This was never properly explained to the parents, who having read the story in the local paper, had legitimate concerns as to why it appeared the majority of the Committee was not agreeing with the recommendation of the administration. But the truth was we couldn’t start school prior to September 1st because it is stipulated in two union contracts.
Now this is where it gets interesting…
Last year the School Committee was negotiating all union contracts. Normally part of the teacher’s contract is a copy of the three years of school calendars that the contract is covering. So when we were negotiating the contract the School Committee could have easily approved three years of calendars with the after September 1st start, in accordance with the contracts, but that isn’t what the administration wanted. Again, it was all about those three extra days of instruction prior to MCAS testing. So we had already approved the 2011-12 school year calendar, but nothing was ever brought to us about the next two years, 2012-13 and 2013-14.
So for the other union group that was not interested in making this change there was an Executive Session called, the minutes of which were recently released by the new Committee. Within this closed door meeting the former Chairman brought this issue up yet again, even though previously the indication, during negotiations, was that this union was not interested in making this change, and he recommended to the Committee that we ‘ask them again’ to change this requirement, with no compensation, no negotiations. If they were willing to do it for free, great, and if not then so be it. In fact the actual quote from the former Chairman was… “It doesn’t hurt to ask.”
No one argued that it wouldn’t hurt to ask yet again, but there was definite indication by the Committee that we were NOT willing to compensate or negotiate for this change.
Well a few months later this issue was brought back to the Committee, but this time it was explained that the union in question was willing to make the change, for a concession on our part. The concession did and does have a financial impact to the district, which was not explained transparently in December, and no matter how it is spun, and since the previous direction from the Committee was not to offer any compensation, remember no negotiations, I would say that this “deal” was against the direction of the Committee.
Well, to make a very long story slightly less long, let’s just say that in the end five members of the former Committee, with around two weeks left in the two year term, jammed this agreement through, along with the approval of the next two years' calendars.
ack in December I was very outspoken about how I felt that the lame duck Committee, made up of six out of nine members who would not be returning, should not be making this decision. In fact, I think it’s important to point out that of the five members who voted for this change only one is currently serving! In addition, two of the three returning members voiced their own concerns, and even two newly elected members, who are both now Executive Officers, spoke out during Open Forum to voice concerns with what those five were obviously doing. Their concerns were also ignored!
One of my main concerns at that time was that even though the one union had indicated their willingness to start in August, it had never properly been negotiated and we did not have an approved, signed contract (Memorandum of Understanding) for this change. I felt, rightly I might add, that it wasn’t proper to be approving calendars with a start date that went against the current contract, but from my point of view, with time running out in the term, it just seemed that these five members were more interested in getting this in before they were out, than doing things the right way.
Now I’ve had many conversations, even recently, regarding the Attleboro Public School calendar, usually focused on the start date, the vacations and the professional development days. All things affected by the calendar decision.
Generally the issues I have heard are:
- That there is no reason that the kids should go to school for two days in August and then be off for four days, because of the Labor Day weekend vacation, and then start back up. That these two days would be worthless.
- That the December vacation is too long (what was it, like two weeks or something).
- And that there are too many professional development days and having them on Wednesday is not easy for families (last year I tried to get them changed to Fridays but the administration and the slight majority of the committee was against this).
Many of you might not know that next year school for our kids, per the improperly approved calendars back in December, will be starting in August. That the kids will go to school on August 29th and 30th and then will be off for four days, returning to school on Tuesday, September 4th and that the December vacation is scheduled to be just as long as this past one…
Now what if I told you that I have a solution to all of these concerns, a solution that I previously presented while I was serving but which was shot down by the administration for a reason that I believe was a little shortsighted and arbitrary.
But once again I find myself on page three and see that I will need to turn this one into another two part article, next time explaining my idea to the calendar that would have the kids start after Labor Day, would decrease the December vacation, would end school three days earlier (making summer longer), would help to alleviate the concerns of longer school years due to snow days, and would give the students three extra days of instruction prior to taking the MCAS tests.
I would hope that the majority of you would agree that if I could present a calendar that does all of these things that it would be something that would make just about any reasonable person happy.
So until next time…