School Board Again Seeking Leniency From Governor on Academic Calendar Mandate

Montgomery students could lose spring break days, Jewish holidays to scheduling crunch


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Board members discuss the academic calendar for 2018-2019

Via Montgomery County Board of Education

The Montgomery County school board will send Gov. Larry Hogan a letter about their struggles with the academic calendar.

Again.

The board voted 5-2 Tuesday to ask Gov. Larry Hogan to relax an executive order that schools begin classes after Labor Day and end by June 15. The school board is urging him to push back the mandated end of the school year statewide to June 22.

The vote came as board members discussed various designs for a 2018-2019 academic calendar that they know will disappoint some. They said tough decisions about shortening spring break or holding classes on Jewish holidays are unavoidable because of Hogan’s scheduling constraints.

“We need some relief,” school board member Pat O’Neill said.

On the other hand, school board member Jeanette Dixon didn’t hold out much hope that a letter would convince Hogan to soften his stance. In fact, Dixon said, past correspondence on the issue has seemed to push the Republican governor in the opposite direction.

“What we have done is piss him off,” said Dixon, who opposed sending the letter, along with board President Michael Durso.

The board president later cautioned his colleagues to be role models in how they speak publicly and to temper their “colorful language.”

Hogan in April blasted the school board for sending a similar letter, accusing members of sacrificing students to accommodate the teachers’ union.

A Hogan spokeswoman on Tuesday called it “dishonest” for county education leaders to blame their woes on the governor’s mandate.

“It is disingenuous for Montgomery County officials to threaten Jewish holidays when they can find time to close schools for one full and numerous partial teachers union service days. Most jurisdictions have managed to adopt a common sense calendar that prioritizes what students and families want, and Montgomery County could easily do the same,” spokeswoman Amelia Chasse wrote in a statement after seeing a Bethesda Beat tweet about the board’s latest plea.

“The overwhelming majority of Marylanders, including parents, students and teachers, support Governor Hogan’s efforts to return to common sense school scheduling, and for school administrators to pretend that starting school after Labor Day puts religious holidays in jeopardy is simply dishonest.”

O’Neill has pointed out that eight teacher professional days took place in the summer before students returned for the 2017-2018 academic year, and only one full day will happen during the school year. Half days for planning and grading were scheduled at the end of each quarter.

The Montgomery County Public Schools staff has presented five calendar scenarios for 2018-2019 to board members based on input from community members.

Some people want to keep kids in school for two days longer than the 180-day minimum required by state law. MCPS has traditionally held classes for 184 days, and parents have expressed concern that shortening the year will result in a lower quality of education.

Others are intent on keeping the traditional 10-day spring break. Some parents are pressing for schools to close on the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, while others want time off on the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr or the Hindu holiday of Diwali.

Meanwhile, teachers say they need more professional days for grading and planning.

All of these priorities will compete over the same six days of wiggle room in the academic calendar for 2018-2019. Some of the calendar options on the table would provide 180 teaching days, the state minimum, while others eliminate teacher professional days. The menu of cuts also might include doing away with school closures on Jewish holidays or reducing spring break to six days.

Superintendent Jack Smith said that designing a schedule will force the school board to balance many community preferences but pointed out that changes affecting religious holidays might be particularly sensitive.

“I don’t think any of us have joined the First Church of Spring Break yet,” he quipped.

Durso said MCPS walks a fine line by scheduling time off for certain religious holidays, but describing them as “operational closings” made necessary because of high staff and student absence rates on that date, rather than stating religious observance as the reason. Despite these technical distinctions, it’s tough to avoid the appearance that MCPS is giving preference to one religion over another, he said.

“We’re almost picking and choosing one over the other regardless of what we call it,” he said. “It’s almost like a wink-wink.”

Durso also noted that the absentee rate data used to support closing schools on the Jewish holidays are almost four decades old, and the county population has seen significant demographic changes since then.

Several of the board members suggested gathering new data to inform future calendar discussions.

The calendars presented to board members Tuesday aren’t the only options, and officials said they hope people continue to present alternatives in coming months. The school board is scheduled to take up the calendar again during a Nov. 14 meeting.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

This story was updated to correct the vote count for the decision to send Hogan a letter.

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