I had just returned from a long overseas trip and the last thing I wanted to do was subject my jet lag-addled brain to a school board meeting.
But there’s always drama in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, so I figured the first board meeting of the new school year might reveal something newsworthy. I also had a particular reason for trying to make it to the end of the meeting — more on that later.
So, jet lag notwithstanding, I dragged myself down to Bear Street.
When I arrived, it was a packed house. As the clocked ticked into the third hour, the crowd thinned. The students, who probably had homework to complete, had long since filed out. One by one, others in the audience packed it in. Less than half the seats were now occupied.
There was one group, however, that stuck it out. Many of them were wearing matching blue T-shirts, and it was obvious that they all had something on their minds.
One of the issues currently on the table at NMUSD is a proposed change to the school calendar. The district wants to move up the first day of school from the day after Labor Day, and instead begin the next school year on Aug. 24, 2020.
The district has been contemplating this change for some time and had appointed a committee of staff members, parents, administrators and others to study the matter. The committee recommended the proposed earlier start date.
Changing the school calendar is bound to be controversial, and sure enough, not everyone is happy with the proposal. I get it: Pushing the school year deeper into the hot summer season isn’t a pleasant prospect, and it can throw family planning into a tailspin.
There are, however, many compelling reasons for making the change. An earlier start would align more closely with most collegiate calendars and with the scheduling of many sports and other activities. It would allow fall semester to finish before the winter break, meaning that students wouldn’t have to study for finals during the holidays.
The new date would also give students more school time before Advanced Placement and other tests given in the spring, and it would allow kids to apply for summer jobs and programs with earlier start dates.
The main reason for the change, though, is that so many other districts begin earlier than NMUSD. The district would be bowing to the reality that its students are disadvantaged by beginning school later than their counterparts in other districts. It’s not great, but that’s just the way it is.
But as with many issues at NMUSD these days, the school calendar question has exacerbated tensions among various constituents.
One one side of an icy divide are the administration, led by Supt. Fred Navarro, and some board members. On the other is a committed, highly vocal group of critics comprised of educators, parents and other interested parties.
Some of these critics believe that the district is giving the impression that the calendar change is already set policy. Indeed, in a letter previously published in the Daily Pilot, teachers union President Britt Dowdy questioned whether an email by Navarro could have misled teachers and parents into thinking it was a done deal.
That is not the case, Dowdy wrote, as such a change must first be negotiated with the teachers union. Information posted on the district’s website clarifies that point, but mistrust still runs high.
Which brings me to my reason for wanting to stick around until the end of the board meeting.
Remember the contingent in the blue shirts? I expected that some of them wanted to speak before the board about the calendar issue, but they had to wait. Thanks to a new policy, all public comments on non-agenda items are now heard at the end of board meetings, after all other business is concluded.
That means that by the time anyone could address the board on this topic hours had passed, most people had left — including yours truly, as I finally surrendered to my jet lag — and anyone remaining was likely mentally fatigued.
Board President Charlene Metoyer, in an email response to my questions about the new public comments policy, pointed out that the meetings are for the conduct of board business, and are not intended to be a public forum.
“We provide several opportunities for the public to comment prior to those decisions,” she wrote. “The Board receives comments before we vote on the Consent Calendar, the Resolution Calendar, and the Discussion/Action Items. Sometimes, I have even offered the opportunity for public comment after Reports from our staff. Only public comments for items not on the agenda are at the end of the meeting.”
But given the level of animosity that already exists, it could hardly be seen as a conciliatory move to relegate comments the board might not want to hear until the bitter end.
I fear that NMUSD might be in for yet another controversial and contentious school year. Building bridges will not be on the agenda.
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