Varying school start dates have local group seeking uniformity
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.”
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.”
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.