School board OK’s calendar; break shortened

School board OK’s calendar; break shortened

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2011 9:00 pm
By: Kevin Bowden, Staff Reporter

By KEVIN BOWDEN
Staff Reporter
Union City’s 2011-12 school calendar has emerged as one of the hottest issues faced by the school board in Gary Houston’s 14-year tenure as director of schools.
Early today, the Union City School Board put the issue to rest once and for all.
Unanimous approval was granted to the original calendar that was proposed Monday night by Houston and a calendar committee. The original calendar was accepted over two alternatives that were drafted following a plea Monday night from parent Bentley Beard, who advocated a shorter summer break and a full-week fall break.
He made his case saying a longer summer break served as a “disservice” to lower income students in the system, that more parental input should have been used to draft the school calendar and that the board should consider making a week-long fall break rather than having a three-day fall break.
In reference to the longer summer break, Beard stated Monday night, “I can’t see how it would be in the best interest of low-income students.”
But it turned out that the original calendar’s short fall break was at the heart of the issue.
Houston told The Messenger after today’s called meeting that the school calendar issue has been one of the most hotly-debated issues he has dealt with in his 14 years as director of schools.
This morning’s school board meeting was attended by 14 people, a mix of parents and school administrators, in addition to board members.
Board chairman Glenda Caudle opened the meeting with a six-minute speech addressing the calendar issue. “We are here today to take another look at the Union City School System calendar for 2011-12,” she said at the opening of the 42-minute meeting. “Let’s be clear about the purpose of the calendar. First and foremost, it should take into account what effect there will be on the learning environment and opportunity to educate our children. It seems to me that while there are other considerations, this must take precedence.”
Mrs. Caudle identified the 10 members of the school calendar committee and explained how the process of coming up with a school calendar is influenced by state mandates, the priority of educating students in the school system and many other factors.
“Let me stress that school board members are open to input from all these stakeholders throughout the year,” Mrs. Caudle said. “Both orientation and regular monthly board meetings are open to everyone and those with concerns may add their name to the agenda and speak before the entire group, if that is their preference.
“For those shy about stepping out in public, however, there are other means of communicating. Particularly with the advent of e-mail, board members are more and more accessible. There is no reason for any shareholder to feel that their preferences and concerns have not had a fair hearing.”
Mrs. Caudle’s remarks came in response to criticism from Beard over a lack of parental input into the creation of the 2011-12 calendar.
Although this morning’s school board meeting was very civil, the strong emotions that ran on both sides of the issue were very apparent.
Mrs. Caudle outlined all the considerations that go into making up the school calendar and stated, in part, “The needs of school staff for their own education and training must be considered, and the input they offer related to a calendar’s effect on their students’ challenges in learning must be a part of the final decision.”
As she wound up her comments, she stated, “I say all this to remind each of us that personal preference, while it is important and deserves a hearing, cannot possibly be the determining factor in drawing up a school calendar.”
A total of eight people made formal comments to the school board concerning the calendar.
“It’s your duty to put the children first,” parent Teena Lairy said. “Your job is the children … nothing else should come into consideration.”
The most impassioned and eloquent speech was given by Union City High School principal and parent Wes Kennedy, who took issue with many of Beard’s comments made during Monday night’s school board meeting. Kennedy spent four minutes defending the original calendar as “one of the best in a very long time.”
He also read an e-mail he received regarding the calendar issue. “I know you know my view on the whole matter per our conversation yesterday afternoon, but just wanted to put it in writing,” the e-mail states in part.
The e-mail goes on to praise Houston and the calendar committee and states in part, “It’s disappointing that the calendar issue was tabled, but also surprising to know why it was tabled. A mere group of three parents caused the school board members to pause and reflect about whether to pass the calendar or not … because of condo rentals and vacations???
“The prejudiced remarks made about low income families was nothing more than a feeble attempt to justify their selfish wants. The comment that we are employees and they are the ‘customers’ is insulting.
“If trivial selfish requests from a select few make such an impact on the entire school system … it’s very unsettling for us low to middle income folks. The whole ordeal is unbelievable,” the e-mail concludes.
By approving the original calendar proposal, the school board has set Aug. 11 as a half day of registration and the first official day of school for students, with actual class time beginning Aug. 15. The new calendar sets fall break for Oct. 14-18 (a five-day “weekend”); however, students will also be dismissed on Oct. 13, with teachers putting in a Professional Development Day then. There will be a three-day break for Thanksgiving and a Dec. 21-30 break for Christmas, with school ending early on Dec. 20. April 2-5 will be set aside for spring break and since the Good Friday holiday falls on April 6 in 2012, students and staff will have a full week off. The final day of school for students will be a half day on May 25.
Make-up days for inclement weather dismissals will be added at the end of the calendar, if necessary.
The school calendar is expected to be posted on the school system’s website and will be published in The Messenger.
One of the key elements in the school calendar, at least for the approximately 1,400 students in the city school system, is the 160 days of instruction before the state-mandated TCAP tests are given during the first week of May 2012.
Union City Elementary School principal Michael Paul Miller said those instructional days are “vital” and “critical” for students in his school. He was another of those who spoke out in support of the original calendar proposal.
Of the 14 at this morning’s meeting, only Beard and parents Steve Conley and Heather Rodgers spoke out in favor of one of the alternative calendars. The rest of those who addressed the school board spoke out in favor of the original calendar that was ultimately approved.
Houston said the responses he got during last year’s calendar process were overwhelmingly in support of a later start to the school year and keeping a full-week for spring break.
Miller told the school board today that teachers at UCES took offense at Beard’s remarks to the school board Monday night and they support the original calendar proposal that was accepted today. He added a majority of his teachers favored eliminating fall break altogether for the benefit of students.
His argument was summed up by board member Dr. Wright Jernigan, who used the phrase “continuity of education” for students.
Miller responded to questions from Beard about the calendar, saying he was involved in the process of coming up with the original proposal and compromises had to be made during the process and those on the committee looked at what was in the best interest of the entire school system.
Today’s motion to accept the original calendar proposal was made by board member Karl Ullrich, who also made the motion Monday night; without a second to the earlier motion, it died. Board member the Rev. Curtis McLendon made the second to this morning’s motion and after its unanimous approval, today’s called school board meeting quickly dismissed.
Although the official meeting was over, many of those at the meeting lingered in the Municipal Building to discuss the board’s action.
Published in The Messenger 2.17.11

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