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Before You Yell at the Board of Education Over the School Calendar...

I'll fill you in on a secret - most of the blog posts on my page are for marketing purposes (shocking, I know). Because of my limited time I don't even always write them. Someone else picks areas of my practice and posts articles that a person needing help with that issue may find interesting.

Unlike those, this post has nothing to do with my law practice. I am going to write about a topic that I will never work on as a lawyer and never make any money from. Still, there are some legal angles to it and as a parent it is important to me and my friends. If the information I pass along helps us and our kids then that's good enough for me. This issue is very local in nature but if you have a child attending school anywhere in WV then much of what I'm writing applies to you as well.

Last night I attended a Kanawha County School Board meeting to express concern over the early start date.  I'm not presumptuous enough to think I was there to speak for everyone.  I did express what looks like the most common concern I've seen and heard. 

The school calendar was not even on last night's agenda, which is actually one reason why I went.  Controversial agenda items bring out lots of speakers and it's easy to get drowned out in the noise of so many voices. There were a few other people who signed up to talk about the calendar but, compared to when this will be an agenda item in November, there weren't many of us there.  That helps in a way because the Board members aren't getting bombarded from all directions.

I want to say a few things that I think are helpful in these situations.  First, the people on the Board are human beings.  They make mistakes like the rest of us. That doesn't mean we should go in and tell them how terrible they are.  As parents like me have kids grow up I may think I'm the first to deal with a particular issue.  That's rarely true.

The school calendar has been debated many times before. I don't like the current start date but there are legitimate reasons for it.  One, like I've written before, is that WV counties have a 180 day mandate from the State.  The Boards have to fit those 180 instructional days in somewhere.   They cannot make it work "Labor Day to Memorial Day" like a lot of people seem to propose since that's how it was "back in our day."

There is another seemingly forgotten reason in Kanawha County for the earlier start date.  Some parents of older students used to complain that end of semester exams took place right after Christmas break.  That wasn't much of a holiday for those older kids since they had to spend it studying for these important tests.  By moving the start date up that meant end of semester exams occurred before Christmas, making it a true break for the kids. 

In other words, some parents historically asked for a change to the calendar and the Board accomodated them.  In return, we have to start earlier.  The Board's decisions don't always make sense to me but they also aren't always "wrong" just because we disagree with them.  

Another issue that has come up in the past is that a change to the school calendar can impact teacher pay.  As I understand it, one of the proposed calendars from a few years ago would have cost the teachers what amounted to an entire paycheck.  The teachers weren't unreasonably mad about losing unearned money, the technical change to the calendar would have resulted in them not getting paid for actual work done.  If I'm right about that then that's obviously a legitimate concern for the teachers and the Board. 

That brings us to what you can do if you are interested in the calendar issue.  Some people may like it the way it is.  Some may want it changed.  If you plan to address the Board either in writing or in person then it's, in some ways, like going to court.  Let me give you some free advice, remembering that you get what you pay for. 

When you go to court you can't just stand up and yell that the other person is an idiot and that you should win.  At least you shouldn't do that.  You have to prove why you are correct.  Sometimes you have to offer a solution.  The same is true with a County Board of Education.

I've seen some parents just stand up and basically say "This is ridiculous! You all need to do something!"  People in the audience will then applaud because, they agree, something needs to be done.  The problem is the Board is not offered a solution, just a demand for change. They are sitting there thinking to themselves, "But if I change the calendar for you then I'm going to make some other parents mad when exams fall after Christmas." 

If you've never been to a Board meeting here is a link to a story on the one I attended last night.  In the beginning you'll see a lady at the podium (she also spoke against the early start date and did a nice job).  If you're going to talk you have to stand at that podium in front of the Board and the crowd.  You have a certain period of time in which to speak...last night 5 minutes, other nights it may be different.  I am interviewed briefly.  I said much more than that sound bite while addressing the Board, during which I never argued that my opinion is the best.  I'm just one parent offering some ideas while also trying to see things from the Board's point of view.

Board members really don't mind being told why they are wrong if you can do it respectfully and with facts.  They want to get it right.  If you are hostile and tell them they don't care about the kids then they are going to tune you out.  They do care.  If they didn't they wouldn't be on a School Board. 

If you laugh at that then please go to several Board meetings in a row when there is nothing on the agenda that particularly interests you.  Watch what the Board members have to do on a regular basis.  It's not what I'd call fun and it's certainly not glamorous. 

They get criticized by someone for any decision of public interest.  They are going to respond much better if you say, "I know you have a tough job and did what you thought was best a few years ago.  This is why I now think there is a better way."  That is not kissing their ass, that is just being a decent human being to someone with a difficult job.  Just because they were elected to do it doesn't mean they deserve an extra helping of abuse. 

If you advocate a change to the calendar be prepared to defend your position.  That goes beyond just saying you don't like it the way it is.  What will you say if a Board member asks, "Mr. Smith you told us you have a kindergartner.  If we adopt your plan what does the Board say to parents of high schoolers who don't want to study over Christmas and essentially lose that holiday for themselves?  That's not just a high schooler losing vacation, they probably won't retain all their information quite as well compared to taking the tests right when classes end. Those students are fighting to get into college.  What do we tell them?"

If you say we can keep everything the way it is and just move back the end date what will you say if asked, "Mrs. Smith you said let's start in September, keep our holidays and just finish later.  With our 180 day requirement that means we'd finish in the middle of June.  State law now also requires us to make up snow days.  That means students could be in school even longer, up to June 30 is permisible by law.  Do you want us to keep schools open until the end of June?  What about parents who count on the end date to schedule family vacations?  They can't schedule anything with certainty until July under your plan.  At least we know the start date in August is certain.  Under your plan we could be in school until basically July, but not know until we get that far.  What do we tell those parents?"

For now a simple Kanawha County solution appears to be moving back our end date by one week, until the end of May (like in neighboring Putnam County),  taking back just two days from Thanksgiving vacation and three days from Christmas break.  Those two changes would give us two more weeks off in August.  Whether we can pull that off without moving exams past Christmas...I don't yet know.  I know some people in rural areas will also still want off the entire week for Thanksgiving for hunting season, etc. 

No plan is going to make everyone happy.  What looks good to me may not work for you.  Whatever your opinion you have to consider how it impacts other families.  For those who like things as they are you also need to think about, for example, some older kids who work full-time in the summer out of necessity.  Those extra two weeks can really help them pay for things they need.  All of these arguments have pros and cons.

There are few other things you can do before the November meeting on this issue.  Several petitions are apparently online asking for a calendar change.  Those can help but, again, have a solution.  Don't just demand "we want our summer back!" 

It's also easy to post online polls and they can help.  However, if all the survey asks is, "Do you want your summer back?!?" then the Board may not really care about the results.  What they'd rather see is, "Do you support this specific plan [insert plan] to get your summer back?"   

Ultimately, if you care, get involved.  Do it constructively but make sure the Board knows your opinion.  The meeting on the calendar issue is said to be November 17.  Verify that to be sure.  If you don't speak up then someone else will make the decision for you.

God Bless and keep your kids safe this year,
JB 


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