After a month of protest over the Laguna Beach school board’s approval of an unprecedented start of school before Labor Day, elected officials conceded to parents’ persistent demands and retracted its decision in a 4-0 vote Tuesday. Schools will now start as they did, on the Tuesday, Sept. 3, after the long holiday weekend.
In January, board members unanimously decided to start schools on Aug. 29, approving the recommendation of administrators who said the issue was supported by the teachers’ union. Adding two days at the beginning of the school year allowed the district to close classes for two more days in November, making the Thanksgiving holiday a weeklong break. The union’s position was that too many children missed school during the first two days of that week, disrupting the teachers’ curriculum.
According to school absence figures, attendance averaged 88 percent for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving for the past three years. Parent Cheri Morgan did some number crunching of her own, which seemed to undermine that argument.
Morgan asked the district for the truancy rate for the Fridays before every holiday. She found that absentee rates were higher on those days than on the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. As an example, she cited the Friday prior to last December’s break, where attendance at the high school fell to 82 percent, 85 percent at Thurston Middle School and El Morro Elementary School and 95 percent at Top of the World Elementary.
“I certainly didn’t need to spend my hours doing the research that, had it been done ahead of time, this might not even been an issue,” said Morgan. Districts surrounding Laguna start school after Labor Day, she pointed out, suggesting administrators establish a committee to bridge the gap in communications with parents. “This is a community that has a voice; this is a big decision,” she said.
“This issue is something that needs to be renegotiated at the table,” Bob Tucker, a union representative for the district’s non-teaching staff, said at the specially called meeting. Other districts have calendar committees “so that there is a front-loaded way of looking at this” before it becomes a volatile community issue, he said.
Linda Barker, president of the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association and a TOW teacher, said she’s never seen as much animosity expressed towards board members in her 29 years with the district. Changing the school-year start date, which was initiated by the teachers’ union, is a small issue considering the cuts in staff and programs occurring in neighboring districts, she said in a later interview. The impetus for the change, she said, was to give students’ the best instruction.
The teachers will accept the reversed decision. “We believe in the democratic process,” said Barker. “The teachers value their relationship with the community and I feel the community values their relationship with the teachers. We also value our relationship with the school board and the administrators. We will be there to support whatever decision is made. That’s our role. We want to do whatever is best for the children. It’s time to move on.”
Another reason the board backtracked this week to the traditional start date was a missive from city officials, pointing out that school buses would only exacerbate one of the most congested summer weeks where free city trolleys are still attempting to alleviate traffic by ferrying tourists to art festivals.
The board’s decision to start school earlier was based on a district survey to parents and teachers last fall. The survey said the district was “considering a possible change” and asked for input. Only 43 percent of district parents responded to what has since been described as a feeble attempt at communication rather than a clearly defined decision-making tool. Of those parents, 61 percent preferred keeping the start date in September. However, 73 percent of the district’s teachers responded with 65 percent favoring the earlier days.
To the palpable chagrin of the audience, board chair William Landsiedel repeatedly reprimanded the crowd of mostly adults not to clap or make comments after others spoke. Jimmy Goson, part-time comedian speaking on behalf of his high-school daughter Josie, took exception before his turn to speak, saying that without clapping he almost didn’t step up to the podium. “Whenever I speak, there’s a cover charge and a two-drink minimum,” he said.
Goson said students now even have homework in the summer and an earlier start would dampen school spirit. “This is a hugely unpopular event with the children,” he said. “I mean who wants to go to school in August, really? You didn’t, I didn’t. You’ll have all these children with animosity in their hearts, and anger. Their first day of school should be happy and should be fun and exciting and they’re enjoying it. With that in mind, it just seems silly to start a couple days earlier. Don’t worry about extending Thanksgiving. How much turkey can you eat, honestly?” Goson warned the audience not to clap as he stepped away from the mic.
Board member Jan Vickers was unable to attend the meeting, her first absence as a long-time board member. She dislocated and broke her shoulder in a car accident on Sunday, district superintendent Sherine Smith announced.