By Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — Parents for years have complained about the lack of educational value in August school openings which also interfere with summer vacation plans. When the proposed 2014-2015 academic calendar for the Newfound Area School District called for a full week of school in August, they found a sympathetic ear with some members of the school board and, on March 20, the board adopted an alternative calendar that has classes beginning on Sept. 2 and running until June 17.
The revised calendar elicited the most discussion at last week's meeting, with faculty representatives objecting to the change.
"We were concerned about the drastic change, especially the school start," said Deirdre Conway, speaking for the Newfound Area Teachers Association. "Why now?"
She said that, in all the years the district has been opening before Labor Day, there has been no problem with attendance on those early days. Of all the school districts in the state, only 29 start after Labor Day, she said.
Ruby Hill of Danbury, who took over as chair of the school board during the organizational meeting, had spearheaded the effort for a revised calendar that not only had school starting earlier but also adjusted no-school days and shortened Christmas vacation time to keep the end date close to the original calendar which had the last day of classes occurring June 15.
The original calendar would have given students two full weeks off for the December vacation. Hill's version would have the winter break starting on Wednesday, the day before Christmas. Conway argued, "It's not educationally sound to have children in school the day before Santa Claus comes."
Parents in the audience, with one exception, supported the new calendar, speaking of the difficulties that so many holidays and days off create, often requiring a parent to forfeit pay and stay home to be with the child.
Superintendent Stacy Buckley explained that the early start was required by board policy which says Newfound needs to work with the Plymouth school system because several Newfound students attend the Plymouth Regional Career and Technical Education Center. Plymouth plans to start even earlier but she worked with them on the calendar so Newfound would not have to start until Aug. 25. Moving the start of school further back would deprive those students of the first six days of vocational classes, she said.
The board discussed sending a bus from the high school to Plymouth on those early days just for the voc-tech students, noting that students in athletics attend practices that occur prior to the start of school. They also asked for cost figures on sending shuttles to the homes of those students, although they noted that most of them probably have access to vehicles, anyway.
Business Administrator Michael Limanni said the cost of the buses would not be a significant expense, but he questioned what the participation would be. Board members responded that voc-tech students are vested in the programs and they thought attendance would not be a problem if they had a way to get there. Limanni agreed to get specific numbers for the board's consideration.
There also was discussion of the impact on summer classes that are required for special education students. By starting later, the district would need to extend those classes which Buckley said would be expensive with no money in the budget to cover the cost. Board members discussed adjusting the start date by a couple of days to provide a couple of days at the end of the summer, but Buckley said the schedules and contracts have already have gone out. "We make these plans six months ahead," she said.
Some of Hill's original suggestions, which would have the end of the school year occurring earlier in June, ran contrary to law, such as having students in school on Veterans' Day; others posed a problem for administrators who, by contract, do not have to work on Martin Luther King Day which Hill also had down as an instructional day. Upon learning of the conflicts, the board adjusted the proposed schedule.
The most difficult problem was trying to schedule teacher workshops and parent-teacher conferences on the new calendar. Hill particularly objected to November scheduling that would have students attend school on Monday, have Tuesday off for the Veterans' Day holiday, return to school on Tuesday and Wednesday, then have Friday off for parent-teacher conferences. But finding an alternative day for the conferences would have meant scheduling them too early to be meaningful, creating three partial weeks in a row, or having the conferences so close to the end of the term that teachers would have to spend their Thanksgiving break preparing report cards.
Conway finally suggested a compromise that would schedule the parent-teacher conferences just prior to the Thanksgiving break, but move back the date for report cards to give teachers time to prepare them without cutting into their holiday time.
Prior to the vote, Vice-Chair Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater called the issue a "tough one". "The board has been criticized for micromanagement," he said, "and I don't like to go against to our professionals. But I'm conflicted by the parents and, with my belief in local control, and if there's enough interest in making a change, I have to listen. This issue was controversial last year, and the year before. While I'd like to defer to our employees, I am an employee of the taxpayer, so I'm more inclined to come up with something to satisfy my constituents, when this comes up time and time again."
In addition to adopting the new calendar, the board discussed the teacher's collective bargaining agreement that voters turned down earlier this month. The teachers have asked to return to the bargaining table and the board agreed.
The board also asked the superintendent to send a notice to the towns about appointing a representative to serve on the Bridgewater-Hebron withdrawal study committee, called for by the two towns. Bridgewater and Hebron formed a village district in order to build and maintain an elementary school in Bridgewater at a time when the Newfound Area School District was not willing to build more schools, and they have leased the building to the district for $1 per year. Now many residents of the two towns would like more control over the education of their students, so they are seeking a study of the feasibility and suitability of withdrawing. They envision operating a K-8 school and tuitioning older students to either Newfound or Plymouth, both of which have excess capacity in their high schools.