Board reverses school year decision

Laguna Beach Unified School District students will once again begin school Sept. 3 — not Aug. 29.

The district's school board voted 4-0, with Jan Vickers absent, Tuesday night at a special meeting to rescind its decision to begin the 2013-14 school year before Labor Day.

Tuesday night's meeting was packed, with standing room only inside the school district's offices. Parents made passionate pleas to reverse the earlier decision and applause filled the room following the board's vote.

"I feel justified in efforts to collect data to prove [district officials] wrong," said Sheri Morgan, who has four children in Laguna Beach schools.

She spoke during the public comment period, citing truancy rates she received from the district for the day before a holiday — an attempt to refute one of the reasons used to explain the earlier school date by Supt. Sherine Smith in a letter.

Smith told parents gathered at Tuesday's special meeting that district staff received a lot of feedback from parents, teachers, school PTAs and SchoolPower, a fundraising organization, on the calendar change and that Tuesday's meeting was another opportunity to receive input on the issue.

Public comments took up at least 40 minutes of the 1 1/2-hour meeting. One parent said the "district failed them, but I embrace the fact you had the courage to invite us back. This is how democracy works."

Another parent said that if the earlier start date had remained, children from other cities would have fun in Laguna during the Labor Day weekend, rather than Laguna residents' children.

School board president Bill Landsiedel threatened to stop the meeting twice if attendees hollered or applauded too loud.

"This issue has blown out of proportion," Landsiedel told the crowd. "It's two days." He referenced other districts taking furlough days or facing state takeover. "We always must keep perspective that we live in Laguna Beach."

Landsiedel's comments riled parents even more.

"Comments like these show [board members] are arrogant and out of touch," parent Rick Putnam said. "You have a lot of work to do."

The board voted for the school year change at its Jan. 22 meeting.

District officials said they made the decision in the best interest of students' education. The move called for a week off at Thanksgiving. Smith wrote a letter explaining the board's decision following the Jan. 22 meeting and mailed it to parents. The district said teachers preferred the earlier start, saying there are high absence rates the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving and disruptions when parents take their children out early.

The number of absent students increased from Monday to Tuesday of Thanksgiving week for all Laguna schools from 2008 to 2012, according to data provided by Shannon Soto, the district's director of fiscal services. In 2012, Thurston had 63 students absent the Monday before Thanksgiving. On Tuesday the number increased to 95, district absence rates show. Laguna Beach High had 74 students absent the Monday before break. On Tuesday, the number increased to 106.

The numbers do not reflect students who leave during the day, Soto said by email. Students are counted as present if they attend part of the school day.

Several parents opposed the calendar change decision in previous public meetings, saying district officials did not clearly communicate to them that they were considering tweaking the calendar. Parents also said the earlier start would create hardship for families wishing to take vacations during Labor Day weekend and hamper students who may hold summer jobs that run through Labor Day.

Parents asked school district officials to reconsider their decision during the regular school board meeting Feb. 12. Smith told parents during that meeting: "We fell short in not pushing communication to parents."

Michelle Jaeger has two children who graduated from Laguna Beach High and has a sophomore at the school. She was opposed to the earlier start date and attended Tuesday's special meeting.

"I don't come to a lot of meetings, but maybe I should," Jaeger said. "I would have been more eager to listen and learn if I felt the process was done in a structured, well-educated manner so I could understand how and why a decision is made.

"[Reversing the earlier decision] shows progress, and that's what the whole learning journey is all about."

Morgan said she would like to see more surveys.

"I would like [board members] to be better in touch with the community they serve," she said. "They are off to a good start in announcing this meeting."


Absence of Vickers

Smith said Vickers dislocated her shoulder last Sunday, which was why she was not at the meeting. Board member Theresa O'Hare said Vickers has not missed a meeting in 20 years while on the board.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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