LIVINGSTON, NJ - A large and vocal crowd of Livingston community members gathered in the High School auditorium for the Board of Education’s monthly workshop meeting on Monday night to discuss a seemingly mundane issue—the school calendar.
“It’s the most discussed school calendar in the history of school calendars,” Board President Barry Funt said. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
In the face of repeated weather closures, the reorganization of the remainder of the 2013-14 school year has become a contentious one, as evidenced by the testimony of frustrated parents and disagreement among the Board. Superintendent John Alfieri and several Board members also noted that they have received multiple phone calls, emails and impromptu grocery store queries from concerned parents over the issue.
The Board was faced with a decision that could potentially alter the vacation and work arrangements of families and district employees, with many of those arrangements having been scheduled months in advance. Graduation ceremonies for Livingston High School could also be affected.
The crux of the matter was the number of school days—the Livingston School District does not have enough of them under the current schedule. Under New Jersey state law, a school district must be in session for a minimum of 180 days of the school year to receive state aid. Within that constraint, Livingston has a provision of three “free” weather closure days and four additional closure days that would take place in lieu of a scheduled recess. School closures exceeding the seven-day provision would necessitate a schedule shift.
Livingston has currently used five school closures, with the strong possibility of more harsh weather on the horizon. The current school calendar calls for any needed school days to be taken from the spring recess in April (the first extra session would take place on Monday the 14th, the second on Tuesday the 15th and so forth). Several parents, administrators and Board members questioned the wisdom of abbreviating the only major break between now and the end of the school year, however.
Some parents noted that they have already booked vacations for the spring recess. One man, a parent of a Livingston High senior, argued that even families who are planning to stay in the area will suffer. He noted that parents’ work schedules are often in conflict with their children’s school and extracurricular activities. He said his family was planning to use the spring recess to spend quality time together.
“Families need time to be families,” he said, to much applause from the crowd.
Board member Leslie Winograd argued that the April recess serves an important educational function at a critical time for student development.
“These kids are under a lot of pressure—they’re taking AP classes, studying for the SATs, the ACTs,” she said. “They need a break for their mental health to recuperate and even study.”
“It’s not just about taking the family to Florida.”
Heritage Middle School principal Patricia Boland also raised concerns about the quality of instruction students would receive during an abbreviated spring recess week.
“The reality is—a lot of teachers would still be absent. We would use a lot of substitutes and students in those classes would mostly be doing busy work,” she said.
Student representative Jeremy Knopf agreed with Winograd and Boland.
“From the student’s perspective, we’ve gotten used to having that April break,” he said. “It’s important to have time to relax instead of going straight through to June.”
Board member David Jasin floated a motion (seconded by Winograd) to extend the school year from Friday June 20th to Wednesday June 25th (with graduation also to be held on the 25th). The extension would serve to preserve the April recess, while also providing at least a one-day cushion in the case of additional snow closures. Any additional snow closures would result in extraordinary measures being taken— such as having students come in on Saturdays, or adding days after the 25th (with seniors exempt).
Business Administrator Steven Robinson supported the idea.
“If I were a gambling man, I would bet that we would have at least one or two more snow days this winter,” he said. “[Extending the school year] gives us some insurance, while also giving parents a definite idea of the schedule.”
“At this point, it’s much easier to ask families to adjust plans for June than to adjust plans for April,” Winograd added.
Funt objected to the motion on the grounds that extending the school year at the present moment would unnecessarily disrupt schedules.
“If we have something like 10 more snow days, however unlikely that may be, then we would obviously have to extend the school year no matter what,” he said. “But I don’t want to disrupt people’s plans prematurely when we haven’t reached eight snow days yet. We have time to make this decision.”
Funt added that he has received many emails and phone calls from parents describing travel plans that begin immediately after the scheduled June 20th graduation date. During the public comment, multiple parents urged the Board to consider that several seniors have signed contracts to begin working immediately after graduation.
Board member Arthur Altman agreed with Funt, saying he did not want to punish families who had made plans in accordance with the original school calendar.
“It would be unfortunate to lose part of the April recess, but it was written on the calendar from the beginning that that would be where we took days from,” he said.
The Board took an informal, nonbinding straw poll before the motion could reach a vote with Jasin and Winograd voting for the motion and Funt, Altman and Pamela Chirls voting against.
With the motion tabled, the original school calendar will remain in place. Livingston residents must now wait for the February 24th Board meeting to get a final word on the changes that will impact their future plans. Whether the weather cooperates in the intervening days remains to be seen.
“The bottom line is, no matter what decision we make, a lot of people are going to be unhappy,” Funt said.
As of now, based on the current calendar, school will be in session on Monday, April 14 and Tuesday, April 15.
If there is one more snow day, school will be in session on Wednesday, April 16 too.