Parents, staff call for restoring winter break

Winter break has not been added back to next year’s school calendar yet, but the Board of Education has indicated that will change after survey results showed parents want it.

The current makeup of the 2014-15 school calendar does not include a winter break in February 2015. However, a vote is tentatively scheduled for the board’s Jan. 23 meeting at 7 p.m. at Western Middle School to restore it after the survey showed a clear consensus to have the break before Presidents’ Day.

Last month a survey was issued to public school parents and staff in the district giving three options for when and how long a winter recess built around the federal holiday of Presidents’ Day would be and, of those three options, both groups indicated a preference to have the recess the week before the holiday.

If that option is formally introduced at the Jan. 23 meeting and approved, it would put a winter recess that would begin on Monday Feb. 9 and have school resume on Tuesday, Feb. 17, which is the day after the Feb. 16 President’s Day holiday. According to the district, there were 2,613 parents and 936 staff members who completed the survey and 55% of the parents approved of that option and 45% of staff members did too.

“It seems like a no brainer,” board Vice Chairman Jennifer Dayton said at the board’s Jan. 16 work session, where the survey results were discussed. “I couldn’t be happier with the results generating a consensus so I think we can move ahead.”

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie did not provide a recommendation to the board but did urge the members to consider the survey results as well as other evidence. In the survey results summary, Dr. McKersie did advise the board to “be cautious” before setting a precedent where survey data is used as the primary or sole basis of policymaking.

The current calendar, which has a four day weekend built around Presidents’ Day, was also presented as an option on the survey and proved to be the least popular, getting only 25% of support from both parents and staff.

The favored plan is the longest of the three recess options that were presented in the survey and goes up against board thinking from when the calendar was originally approved. Board members had earlier eliminated the winter break to try and respond to extreme weather conditions of prior years that ate up “snow days” from the calendar and forced the schools to be in session longer than intended in order to meet state requirements for how many days students must be in class. The original vote was taken in January 2013 to eliminate the break with a five to three margin with current board members Ms. Dayton and Peter Sherr in the opposition.

Now, however, parents and staff have made clear they want the break restored, continuing an argument that was made when the change was suggested in the first place.

While there was only a brief discussion about the item, it seems likely that the change will be made at the Jan. 23 meeting. Board member Adriana Ospina was on the prior board that had approved the change and said that while she had voted for it then, she had changed her mind.

“I’m not swearing in blood how I’m going to vote, but I’ve certainly looked at it from a different perspective,” Ms. Ospina said. “We were hampered by three years of extremely bad weather at the beginning of the year and that’s not always going to be the case. I will always be concerned by two things. It’s not good precedent to reopen things, but on the other hand we have to make clear to ourselves and the community that we’re willing to make an exception for the calendar because this has touched people emotionally. The second thing is that we have to pick our fights and this is important to the families.”

Board members expressed concern about the ability of a person to respond more than once, essentially stuffing the ballot box for a favored option. District Director of Communications Kim Eves acknowledged the district had been worried this could happen but that there wasn’t enough time to have stronger measures in place to fully prevent this given the need for the quick turnaround of the data. She stressed, though, that the district believed that 85% of the responses received were presumed to be individual and unique and that while the remaining 15% came from duplicate IP addresses, that could well have come as a result of respondents using the library or a Starbucks to send in the survey.

“We did take measures to ensure the results of the survey were credible,” Ms. Eves said. “We did make it explicit that we only wanted one survey per household. We reviewed the response rates per building to identify any total responses that would exceeded those expectations. The only place that happened was the North Mianus School staff responses where there was 107% responses and we researched that and found that a number of North Mianus Staff members are also parents and they identified themselves as both. That’s why we have the higher rate.”

Board member Peter Bernstein said he realized there was a time crunch, but that if the district was going to utilize surveys like this in the future it made sense to identify solutions to this now and have it ready for use the next time a survey was used. He said the 15% response from duplicate IP addresses was “significant” and noted that if you took that response level from one option and put it on another, you would end up with a dead heat.

“We just need more notice,” Ms. Eves said. “We can do it. We know how to do it. We just need more time.”

 

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