Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

October 4, 2005

School Calendar Challenged

Debbie Blank

Seven parents – three with children in private schools, two with children in Batesville public schools and two with kids in both – spoke to Batesville Community School Corp. trustees Sept. 19 about their desire to see the school year start later.

BCSC parent Vicky Wilson said she was there “in support of letters we sent.” Trustee Chris Lowery said he received six that were alike and one that was different. Superintendent Dr. Jim Freeland reported getting 10.

BCSC President Mike Bettice said, “We did get your letters. We are interested in what you have to say ... We need to do a better job of sharing that information.”

Wilson acknowledged that the 2006 start date of Aug. 16 is five days later than this year’s, "but I think it could be better."

Jim Fangman’s children attend St. Louis School, which has a calendar very similar to BCSC’s due to shared busing. He wanted to know the criteria used to determine the start date. Fangman had heard theories the date hinged on ISTEP and fall sports dates or concluding the fall semester in December so students didn’t have to study over the holidays. “We really don’t know what the rationale is.”

BCSC parent Dr. Stephen Stein talked about a Sept. 19 Indianapolis Star article that stated Gov. Mitch Daniels wants ISTEP testing moved to the spring, an opinion not shared by Suellen Reed, superintendent of public instruction. According to the article, bills filed in both the House and Senate to move the test to the spring failed to pass in this year's session. The article noted that 38 states administer standardized test in the spring only.

According to Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jim Roberts, “It would be costly” to change the ISTEP testing period. He also wondered when in the spring testing could take place. If it happens in late spring, test results won’t be back to BCSC in time to offer summer remediation and if it happens too early, students may not have learned enough of that grade’s curriculum to score well.

The Indianapolis Star said a fiscal analysis by the Legislative Services Agency estimated the cost to switch the test to spring at more than $14 million, based on figures from CTB McGraw-Hill, the company that now provides ISTEP. Daniels, however, has a letter from that company, offering to move the test at no additional cost in order to keep Indiana's business.

Addressing whether fall sports influence the first day of school, Freeland said, “The start of school and football have absolutely no connection.” In fact, the Indiana High School Athletic Association, not BCSC, establishes when athletes can start practices and games.

Stein added, “My concern as a physician, watching boys at middle school playing football in the August heat, something is going to happen to one of our kids.” He said after students attend cross country practices, they “come back washed out. There are some real health issues.” Stein said he might send a letter to IHSAA about his worries.

The letter drafted by several parents stated, “No academic benefits from early school starts have been shown to exist .... The top 10 academic states (including Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri and Kansas, but not Indiana), in four commonly used state education ranking systems, have two things in common – they begin the school year in late August or early September and administer semester finals after the winter break.” Their information came from a Save Alabama Summers Web site.

Lowery said trustees and administrators have done differing amounts of research and are still exploring whether a school’s calendar impacts “educational excellence.”

The group letter observed, “We live in an era where we are constantly being asked to cut costs and increase efficiencies. Would it not be more efficient to avoid the high costs of air conditioning during the month of August? When Tulsa, Okla., Public Schools moved their school start date from Aug. 19 to the day after Labor Day, they saved approximately $500,000 through reduced utility costs. When local school systems increase their operating efficiency, the savings become available for teacher salaries, classroom supplies and educational programming.”

Tim Hunter, BCSC director of buildings and grounds, reported the corporation’s annual electric bill is between $180,000 to $190,000. The September bill for August consumption is the most expensive, averaging about $20,000, $5,000 more than the average of the lowest month. “We have been trying to look at” reducing energy costs.

Freeland said the school district’s natural gas rates could be going up around 25 to 30 percent. “Economically, it make more sense to close in January and open in the summer. It would be less expensive to air-condition than to heat.”

Kathy Fangman wondered whether younger children could start later than high school students, pointing out that might save energy costs in some buildings.

Ed Krause, director of transportation and safety, noted it costs $5,500 daily to run all bus routes, which would add up quickly if school start and end dates were staggered, lengthening overall use of buses.

According to Freeland, the decision about when school begins is a collaborative process. BCSC must synchronize its calendar with Southeastern Career Center, which draws students from 10 other school corporations, and Ripley-Ohio-Dearborn Special Education Cooperative. “Part of this process is obviously trying to make sure we don’t adopt a calendar that puts our students in the awkward situation where services are not available.”

Bettice asked if career center students were to miss the first two weeks of instruction there, “Is that the right educational decision for our students?”

The superintendent explained that a first draft of the school year calendar is presented to the Batesville Educators Association, then back-and-forth conversations take place between administrators and staff members. “If we can’t mutually agree,” trustees make the final decision.

Vicki Heil, a Batesville Primary School teacher and BCSC and Oldenburg Academy parent, said she hears opinions from parents and teachers. “I’ve had a lot of people over the years ask me about this ... What I hear is, ‘They’re not listening.’ She proposed surveying parents to get a true picture of their feelings on the issue. Bettice said a survey would need to explain the rationale behind the calendar so parents can make “an informed consent.”

While many parents may remember starting school just after Labor Day, times are changing. According to Lowery, in 1987 the state Legislature upped the number of school days to 180. BCSC teachers’ contracts call for five more days and there are 22 spare days during the year for breaks and holidays, adding up to 207 weekdays needed. Pointing out that during the 2005-06 school year, there are 189 weekdays between Labor Day and Memorial Day, he said, “The math just doesn’t work.”

Trustee Wanita Linkel said, “I have one question. Am I hearing you’d rather start after Labor Day and go to the middle of June?” SLS parents Kathy Fangman and Lynn Albers said starting school at the end of August would be acceptable to them. Linkel questioned, “It doesn’t bother you to go to the middle of June?” Three parents shook their heads.

Heil said that even though early to mid-August start dates might be a regional or state trend, “I don’t know how you can get statistical information on the stress level and amount of family time ... We’re trying to regain what was long ago – that whole idea of more family time, more time with your kids, more time to be outside.”

Stein suggested, “Perhaps what we need is at least one of the school boards in southeastern Indiana to champion a change, to say our parents are concerned.”

Bettice said the board will decide on a format for a future discussion. “We will continue to talk about it so we can come up with a solution that works for everyone.”

Debbie Blank can be contacted at (812) 934-4343, Ext. 113; The Herald-Tribune, P.O. Box 89, Batesville, IN 47006; or debbie.blank@cnhimedia.com.