Vary­ing school start dates have lo­cal group seek­ing uni­for­mity

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - METRO | STATE - BY BEN FELDER Staff Writer bfelder@ok­la­homan.com

Ok­la­homa pub­lic schools have at least 28 dif­fer­ent school-year start dates, which has a group of Ok­la­homans push­ing for a statewide start date in early Septem­ber.

“Our goal is to de­fine what a state-funded school year is,” said Bar­bara Bow­er­sox, one of the lead­ers be­hind Ok­la­homans for School Cal­en­dar Re­form, a group seek­ing to put all schools on the same cal­en­dar, or at least the same start date.

Some pub­lic school dis­tricts start as early as late July or early Au­gust, which in­cludes Ok­la­homa City Pub­lic Schools.

The cal­en­dar re­form group, which has spent the past year lob­by­ing law­mak­ers and has a Face­book group, sees a uni­form start date in early Septem­ber as a way to cut down on costs, es­pe­cially given high air con­di­tion­ing use in the sum­mer months.

They also see a uni­form cal­en­dar as a way to sim­plify things for fam­i­lies that move be­tween dis­tricts or from out of state.

The ef­fort in­spired an in­terim study in the state Leg­is­la­ture that was later

put on hold while law­mak­ers fo­cus on the spe­cial ses­sion.

“Our schools are not op­er­at­ing at peak ef­fi­ciency with re­spect to en­ergy us­age in the sum­mer months,” said Shenita Brown, a par­ent and mem­ber of Ok­la­homans for School Cal­en­dar Re­form.

“Ad­just­ing the guide­lines on start and end dates of the school year would ben­e­fit our state’s bot­tom line.”

Some states set start dates for all schools, or at least a date schools are not al­lowed to start be­fore.

Ok­la­homans for School Cal­en­dar Re­form is not only asking law­mak­ers to set a start date in early Septem­ber, but also create a pub­lic process for a district that wants to make changes or opt out.

The group isn’t sure if leg­is­la­tion will be of­fered in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, but it had hoped an in­terim study this year would be­gin a con­ver­sa­tion among the Leg­is­la­ture.

Bow­er­sox helped launch the ef­fort after her work to move Ok­la­homa City Pub­lic Schools to a later start date, which would have ended the con­tin­u­ous learn­ing cal­en­dar that in­cludes a shorter sum­mer break, with a two-week break dur­ing the fall and spring.

Util­ity cost sav­ings?

Bow­er­sox served on a school district com­mit­tee that ex­plored a change, but she said there was lit­tle in­ter­est in a later start date, even though she be­lieves it could save the district thou­sands of dol­lars in util­ity cost.

“Why would we not be look­ing to save any amount we could?” Bow­er­sox said.

Bow­er­sox filed an open records re­quest with the district to ob­tain elec­tric­ity us­age and found Ok­la­homa City schools saved nearly $60,000 in May 2016 just by cut­ting the school year down by three in­struc­tional days.

Her data also shows a steady de­cline in kilo­watthours in Septem­ber com­pared to Au­gust, when the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture is sev­eral de­grees higher.

Bow­er­sox also said there is in­equity in some stu­dents with longer fall breaks, which can re­sult in “lost knowl­edge.”

The Ok­la­homa City school board chose to keep the con­tin­u­ous cal­en­dar after re­view­ing other op­tions last year, even though district of­fi­cials said mov­ing the start of school back a few weeks could save an es­ti­mated $525,000 in util­ity costs.

In a sur­vey of fam­i­lies con­ducted by the district last year, nearly 54 per­cent said the ex­ist­ing cal­en­dar pre­sented the fewest chal­lenges.

Last year, Ja­nis Per­rault, the district’s chief hu­man re­sources of­fi­cer, said the con­tin­u­ous learn­ing cal­en­dar is a sell­ing point when re­cruit­ing teach­ers.

“We don’t want to go all the way to the tra­di­tional be­cause we feel the CLC is a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage for us,” she said.

Ac­cord­ing to district of­fi­cials, Su­per­in­ten­dent Aurora Lora is ex­pected to rec­om­mend Ok­la­homa City schools con­tinue with the same cal­en­dar mov­ing for­ward, but at least one school board mem­ber is open to a later start date.

“Based on the in­for­ma­tion I have at this mo­ment I would be in fa­vor of mov­ing our start date back,” said board mem­ber Rebecca Budd. “It is more than $1 mil­lion that we lose a year (with an early start).”

Budd said the district could not only see cost sav­ings with a later start date, but a longer sum­mer would give hu­man re­sources more time to hire teach­ers and staff.

“This is our new nor­mal,” Budd said about the state bud­get sit­u­a­tion and its im­pact on pub­lic schools. “If this is your new nor­mal ev­ery penny mat­ters.”

Knowl­edge re­ten­tion

Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials have also said the shorter sum­mer break can help with knowl­edge re­ten­tion, es­pe­cially for stu­dents who speak English as a sec­ond lan­guage.

But while her dis­agree­ment with the con­tin­u­ous cal­en­dar at Ok­la­homa City schools launched Bow­er­sox’s in­ter­est in cal­en­dar re­form, her group be­lieves it can be im­por­tant statewide.

“With money be­ing as tight as it is for schools, I think this is worth ex­plor­ing,” Bow­er­sox said.

Amer­ica’s pub­lic school sys­tems uti­lized a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent cal­en­dars over 100 years ago, de­pend­ing on the needs of the lo­cal com­mu­nity. How­ever, many school dis­tricts across the coun­try be­gan adopt­ing early start dates over the last few decades, of­ten to in­crease in­struc­tional time be­fore end-of-theyear test­ing.

Some states, like Ari­zona, have un­der­gone ef­forts to es­tab­lish a set start date in Septem­ber. But those ef­forts are of­ten met by steep cri­ticism in pub­lic school cir­cles that such a move would take away lo­cal con­trol.

Bow­er­sox said her group sup­ports giv­ing dis­tricts an “opt out” of a Septem­ber start, but only after a de­tailed anal­y­sis of costs and a vote.

Rep. Chad Cald­well, R-Enid, who was one of two law­mak­ers to re­quest an in­terim study on school cal­en­dars, said he sees a po­ten­tial for some sav­ings with a later start date.

“De­pend­ing on what would come out of more in­ves­ti­ga­tion, my hope would be that we would find some sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings for dis­tricts across the state,” Cald­well said.

“But we want to be re­spect­ful of dis­tricts across the state be­cause each district has dif­fer­ent needs.”

[THE OK­LA­HOMAN AR­CHIVES]

LEFT: Eryk King, 4, left, and Ken­neth Ezell, 6, wear their new back­packs at the be­gin­ning of the first day of school at Thelma Parks El­e­men­tary School in Ok­la­homa City, which was Aug. 1.

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