School board members apologize for calendar change

Laguna Beach Unified School District board members issued a public apology Tuesday night to parents angered by a change in the school calendar set to take effect this fall.

Parents packed into the district office for the board meeting. Many stood and waited through presentations on schools in the district using iPads for lessons, and recognition for Thurston Middle School as being named a School to Watch.

About 20 parents took their allotted three minutes to speak on the calendar change, a one-year trial at all four area public schools in which students will begin school on Aug. 29, two days earlier than usual and before Labor Day. The two days were removed from Thanksgiving week, giving students the entire holiday week off. Several parents asked board members to reconsider their unanimous decision, which was made at a Jan. 22 meeting, and many said the decision was made without an opportunity for adequate parent input.

Vacations would be jeopardized, students working the final days of summer jobs would have to make arrangements, and the end of summer would come about abruptly, they said.

District Supt. Sherine Smith issued the first apology.

"We fell short in not pushing communication to parents," Smith told parents before the public comment period.

"The change came from discussions with the teachers' union [Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association] and was made to provide the best learning environment for the students," she said.

Administrators mailed a survey to parents and teachers before winter break to seek input on an earlier start date. Forty-three percent of parents with children in the district responded. Sixty-one percent of parents favored a post-Labor Day start while 66% of teachers who responded preferred an earlier beginning.

Rick Putnam, who has two children at Laguna Beach High, challenged the board's way of doing business and also opposed the change.

"It appears there is a progression of introversion [among the board]," he said. "The families and students come first. They are your clients. The union is not your client. You should be transparent, but have shown to be insular."

One by one, board members offered an apology.

"I was very conflicted," board member Ketta Brown said. "I felt [the change] was in the best educational needs of the kids. Is this perfect? Absolutely not."

Brown then attempted to put the debate in perspective and fought back tears toward the end of her explanation.

"Nobody died and the house didn't burn down," she said. "I've had people die. I'm sorry. There is nothing I would ever do to be dishonest. I take it personally and to heart. We'll do better. We have to."

School board President Bill Landsiedel echoed Brown's comments.

"I think we could do a better job communicating," Landsiedel said. "When I vote, I vote for the best interests of the kids. If I vote, I went through a thorough analysis. We could have extended the school year, but there were no good choices here. I favor having Thanksgiving week off. It's good for kids to have a break now and then."

He then tried to appease parents' concerns about the board's motivations.

"We won't always do what you want, but [any action or vote] is done in good faith," Landsiedel said.

Board member Jan Vickers addressed concerns about a perceived backroom deal made with the teachers' union.

"Contract negotiations are allowed in closed session. We have to honor that," Vickers said. "We will do better. If we say we're going to attend to something, then we're going to do it. Do not continue to stab us in the back."

The district mailed a letter written by Smith to parents following the Jan. 22 meeting that discussed the rationale for the decision. Teachers preferred using the two days before Labor Day as an introduction period to the courses, the letter said. Teachers also complained of parents routinely taking students out of classrooms during the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving, and also of a large absence rate during that time.

The calendar change was an information item Tuesday night, so there was no vote. The only way the board could take future action would be if a board member places it as an action item on an agenda, Brown said.

"I understand parents' point of view," board member Betsy Jenkins said. "My job and my mission is what's best educationally for the students. We heard from teachers and from Mr. [Jerry] Vlasic [the district's director of communications and human resources] and there was only one way to vote to uphold what my job is. I'm committed to trying it and tweaking it if need be."

One suggestion for ensuring proper communication of future issues — brought up during public comments — included three weeks of public notices, a minimum of two public meetings and a 30-day comment period.

Not all commenters were opposed to the change.

Ken Sadler, a recent appointee to Laguna Beach's Planning Commission, has two children, including one in college.

"You're talking two school days," Sadler said. "[The change] is not taking away the summer. It's not that big of a change. Give this a chance. My older son worked at the Pageant [of the Masters] as an usher. [The calendar change] was listed as an item on the same night as the tennis courts."

Sadler referred to a joint meeting of the City Council and school board on Jan. 29. The calendar change was mentioned during the meeting and the public could comment at that time. Sadler said it's up to people to attend meetings if they feel strongly about an issue.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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