After weeks of wrangling—mostly with the state Department of Education—to get around a state law that forces most local school districts to follow a school calendar set by Tallahassee rather than by local districts, the Flagler County School Board on Tuesday reluctantly adopted the calendar it did not want for the coming school year.
The adopted calendar has school starting on Aug. 24 for students, ending on June 7. It ends the week-long Thanksgiving break, reducing it to three days, to the displeasure of parents. But that way more instructional days can be built into the calendar ahead of December’s exams. But those end-of-course exams will still take place the second week of December, rather than in January, with, absurdly to board members, two and a half week of school left in the first semester, which does not end until Jan. 12.
The district and the board would have preferred a significantly different calendar. That one would have had school starting on Aug. 10 and ending May 24. It would have preserved the full-week Thanksgiving Break. And it would have enabled the district to end the first semester on Dec. 17, just before the two-week winter break, with the second semester beginning more logically immediately after the break, as it does in most of the rest of the world’s school systems, private or public, as it does in most colleges and universities.
That alternative calendar would have added weeks to students’ and teachers’ ability to prepare for standardized tests. It would give AP and IB students almost three more weeks to prepare in spring. It would have aligned high school students who also attend college with their college calendars. And it would have prevented long holiday breaks from disrupting the learning flow that helps students perform better.
But Florida law forbids it. It does so even though the law’s application in education matters has often been at odds with educators’ preferences and troves of research that points to the better way to build school calendar.
As written, the law allows only A-rated school districts to set their own calendars. The rest must follow the state’s parameter. Flagler is a B-rated district, missing the A mark by a very slim margin. Weeks ago the Flagler school board asked the commissioner of education for a waiver to the law, so it could set its own calendar. “We believe this mandate is too restrictive,” Superintendent Jacob Oliva wrote Commissioner Pam Stewart. “Allowing Flagler Schools to start earlier would be in our students’ best interest.”
Stewart rejected the request.
That left the school board with little choice, and it left Board Chairwoman Colleen Conklin livid. “The idea of doing EOCs in December when there’s three or four additional weeks of school left for that semester is just insanity to me,” she said, referring to end-of-course exams. “I’m not in support of the calendar that follows statute. I don’t think it’s good for kids, I don’t think it’s good for families, I don’t think it’s good for what they need to do in the classroom as far as teachers in the classroom as well. So I would not support the motion as it stands.”
It’s not as if the Legislature isn’t hearing the howls from districts. But it’s not listening very closely. A Senate bill (SB 688) introduced by Bill Montford, the North Florida Democrat, would merely move the calendar up one week, so that school could start no earlier than 21 days before Labor Day, instead of the current 14. But it preserves the exception that applies only to high-performing districts. An identical companion bill was introduced in the House by several Republican lawmakers. Even if that bill passes, it would only meet Flaglere’s needs halfway.
Still, Conklin sought on Tuesday either to delay adoption of the calendar, pending the direction the Legislature takes when it begins its session in the first week of March, or adopt both its desired (or “contingency”) calendar and the one forced on the district by state law.
“There are districts that have adopted two calendars this year in anticipation of a legislative change,” Oliva said. But he wanted a drop-dead date of when the new calendar would be finally approved, to reduce confusion and allow his administration to plan. That didn’t sit well with some board members.
“The public already has a problem with one calendar, and confusion,” Trevor Tucker said. “If you adopt two calendars and say to have two calendars anywhere on our website, and people not knowing, I think you’re going to lend to greater confusion.”
To board member Sue Dickinson, the board had little room to maneuver whatever calendar was adopted. “If parents are going to take their kids away at Thanksgiving break they’re going to do it whether we have school or not school,” Dickinson said. “Parents are going to do what they want to do. If they have plans, they’re going to go, and unfortunately we’re going to be looked at as the bad guy because we’ve opened school on those days.” But, she said, faculty needs the time to prepare, and waiting until the legislative session ends on May 1 could be problematic, even though Oliva said his administration could wait until then.
An impatient Andy Dance then called for a vote, and the board voted 3-2 to adopt the state-imposed calendar (with minor allowances for local say).
“The proposed calendar carries, unfortunately,” a dejected Conklin said.
“Miss Conklin,” Dickinson reproved, “you’re supposed to be positive once there’s a motion that’s been approved and accepted by the board, remember?”
Conklin wasn’t convinced. “That was painful,” she said, moving on to the next item on the agenda, which would prove even more painful: the fate of the district’s massive building on Corporate Drive, which formerly housed the Flagler Technical Institute.