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Board delays action on school calendar

Board members want to survey parents before deciding whether to start school earlier in August.

The School Board, which has succeeded lately in avoiding controversy, might be about to crack open a rabble-rouser over a seemingly mundane task _ setting the school calendar.

The board came within an eyelash Tuesday night of voting to start the 2000-2001 school at least a week earlier than usual so middle and high school kids could finish their first semesters before Christmas.

Proponents of the move say it would bring order to a chopped-up January where learning is stymied by semester exams, a brief semester holiday and intense preparations for the state's high-stakes achievement tests.

They also contend that wrapping up semester grades by Christmas would help high school seniors meet deadlines for scholarships and college entrance applications.

But in recent years such a move has been torpedoed by teachers and school bus drivers who say it would disrupt summer vacations, exacerbate problems with poor August attendance and force kids to endure another week of hot summer bus rides.

After it appeared there was a 3-2 majority favoring an earlier start, the School Board postponed a decision on the calendar until Feb. 22. The delay was intended to give the district time to send parents a mass mailing seeking their advice on their calendar preferences _ an exercise that could cost the district more than $5,000.

If tradition holds, the 2000-2001 school year would begin Aug. 21 and end June 8. Winter break would run Dec. 20 to Jan. 2. The first semester would end Jan. 19.

Superintendent John Sanders and the majority of the district's principals favor a calendar that starts at least one week earlier and completes the first semester by winter break.

But at least two surveys of school employees during the past year indicated that teachers and bus drivers overwhelmingly oppose such a move.

Sanders was expected to bring the findings to the School Board in November, when the surveys were completed. But he said he let the results sit on his desk because he considered them largely meaningless.

The district has 16,000 students. But the survey got only 254 responses from parent-heavy groups such as the PTA and the school advisory councils. Meanwhile, the survey reached roughly 1,000 teachers and school bus drivers _ half the district's work force. The result was overwhelming opposition to the early calendar.

School Board member Robert Wiggins said the focus should be on serving the needs of students and parents _ the "customers" of the school district _ rather than teachers or bus drivers.

It was a sentiment shared by Ana Trinque, a parent of two schoolchildren and a member of Hernando High's school advisory council, who told board members every parent she has talked with favors the early calendar. If they persist in the delays, she promised that a "ravenous" crowd of parents would show up to support the early calendar.

"You all need to vote for what's best for children, not what's best for elementary school teachers and school bus drivers," Trinque said. She contends that elementary schools are more reluctant to consider the early calendar because they do not give semester exams.

However, media specialist Karen Rice and teachers union president Jo Ann Hartge _ who both work at Suncoast Elementary _ say there is no research to show an earlier start improves the academic environment.

Rice, who leads the district's calendar review committee, said there may be growing support for an earlier start. But given that many people have already made summer vacation plans, she and Hartge say the board should put off an early start until the 2001-2002 school year. But School Board members such as Sandra Nicholson are growing impatient.

"We have discussed this many times. We have been presented with sound educational reasons why this calendar should be moved," Nicholson said. She said vacation concerns should not override something that helps students trying to meet college and scholarship deadlines.

Board member John Druzbick said it seems senseless for students to face semester exams right after their two-week winter break. It makes more sense, he said, to get those out of the way before Christmas to clear the way for achievement tests.

"I don't see anything that is detrimental in an earlier calendar, except an inconvenience to some people," Druzbick said.

Board members Jim Malcolm and Jerry Milby favored the traditional calendar. Malcolm said an earlier start would disrupt families who make annual treks to visit relatives during the summer. Milby, whose wife is a teacher, was skeptical about the educational benefits of an early start.

There are other issues that come into play with an earlier start. Summer vacations would be shorter just prior to the first year of an earlier calendar. That would not be a problem in following years, when the earlier start would allow school to end in late May.

Then there is the heat. School buildings have air conditioning. But, for the time being, school buses still rely solely on open windows to keep kids from overheating physically and behaviorally. Some say that adding another week or two of August heat is akin to cruelty.

Finally, there is the matter of attendance and state money. In years past, the state gave schools cash based on attendance figures from October and February. Starting next year, school districts will get money based on their average daily attendance.

That could cost school districts money because attendance is typically low through the first month of school. Some families do not enroll their kids on time. Hartge said teachers at her school do not put students' names in the grade book until after Labor Day.

Adding another week of school before Labor Day will hurt attendance for a bigger chunk of the year and put latecomers even farther behind.

"Those absentees will even be counted against us," Hartge said.

Hernando County isn't alone in facing calendar issues.

Pasco County recently decided to move the start of its 2000-2001 school year ahead by one week. In the fall, classes began Aug. 23. In the upcoming school year, classes will begin Aug. 14. As a result, Pasco's 2000-2001 school year will end in May, not June.

Part of the reason for Pasco's move was the belief that the extra week of preparation might help students score higher on the all-important achievement tests.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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