Laguna Beach’s school board stuck to their unanimous decision to start school before Labor Day, prompting grumblings by disgruntled parents to boycott the earlier start in August and even recall school board members.
“What is it they can’t hear?” Rick Putnam, who has two daughters at the high school, said in frustration. Putnam had just finished his three minutes at the podium where he, along with a long line of other parents, requested school board members reconsider last month’s controversial unilateral decision. Most speakers felt the board failed to include a key component, sufficient input from the parents. With standing room only, nearly 40 people filled the district’s 32-person capacity board room, most standing for two hours.
After hearing comments from primarily displeased parents, district superintendent Sherine Smith apologized for not being more diligent in involving parents in the decision, vowing to improve the noticing process. “People have valid concerns about our communications,” she conceded. “We’re going to make sure we have responsive communications and that our descriptions are clear enough about what we’re talking about.”
The board decided to revise the school calendar, to convene school on Thursday and Friday, Aug. 29 and 30, rather than on the traditional Tuesday following the Labor Day holiday, and to close school for the entire week during Thanksgiving. The decision came after the district surveyed parents and teachers last November about the then-proposed change, which will now be tested for one year.
Only 43 percent of district parents responded to what has been described as a weakly stated and poorly noticed survey rather than a defining 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. Parents at the meeting questioned the value of academic time versus summertime for a child’s healthy development.
“You guys are really pushing students extremely hard,” said Mark, a parent of young school-age children who declined to provide his last name. “There are a lot of things we learn in the summer that we don’t learn in school: how to swim, how to snorkel, how to be with our families, how to enjoy life. I don’t want my kids home at Thanksgiving. Every time I turn around, my kids aren’t in school. I want them in school where they should be, learning.” Other parents said summer skateboarding, surfing and free time allows kids to be kids.
Parents also wondered whether the decision was driven by the teachers’ union, the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association. “If it’s a union issue you’re trying to please,” said Sharon Morgan, mother of four school-age children, “the teachers have what they want. They have great jobs and great pay and great technology. Give the families what they want.”
Putnam, a businessman, suggested that the board “change their culture.” “It’s families and students who are first. They are your clients,” he said. “You would not be here without them. The union is not your client. They are not here to tell you or any of us how to run our calendar.” He suggested that the board under-promise and over-deliver and practice transparency rather than becoming insular over controversial issues.
Board member Jan Vickers said juggling the calendar change with labor negotiations was a difficult process. “The insinuation that it was some kind of an underhanded, secretive, covert decision really strikes us in a very hurtful way,” she said, describing some frustration at closed session talks over teacher schedules, which legally require confidentiality. “There were a lot of questions asked,” she promised parents, but conceded, “I hear that obviously what we might have felt was reaching out and getting input from every family in the district was not adequate, so we will do better.”
Smith said teachers suggested the change in the calendar to avert absences during the Thanksgiving break. “Where we fell short as a staff,” said Smith, “was not to push out the communications to the parents. Parents were taken by surprise.”
Linda Barker, president of the teacher’s union and a TOW teacher, said in an email Wednesday that many parents pull their children out of school during Thanksgiving. “For those who do come, teachers are challenged to introduce a topic when it can’t be reinforced during the rest of the week,” she said.
Several parents supported the change, stating they agreed with the academic importance. “I would like the calendar decision to be made on what’s best for students, not about my vacation,” said Peggy Wolf, a mother of two students. She agreed that the district was amiss in not garnering more public input. Other supporting parents agreed to try it for a year, emphasizing that it was only a two-day change.
Parent Nancy Linden Koprowski, with a background in public relations, said the district needs a better protocol to communicate. She suggested revamping the system to include three weeks of public notices in print and online, a minimum of two public hearings, a 30-day written comment period followed by a public meeting summarizing community response concluding with a vote by the school board. She also took exception to placating the change by labeling it a pilot program, saying that it still affects the community negatively for a year.
“I just hope we can come together and suck it up for a year and all be okay with that,” board member Ketta Brown said in her concluding comments.