Stonington decision to change school calendar not finalized; another meeting planned

Stonington - It appears the Board of Education may reconsider its controversial decision to eliminate three days from the upcoming April vacation.

The board emerged from a 75-minute executive session at about 8:20 p.m. Tuesday and announced that before it negotiates issues surrounding the change with the teachers union, it will meet on Thursday at 7 p.m. at a location to be determined to further "explore the issue of the school calender."

Board Chairwoman Gail MacDonald declined to make any further comment. Asked whether residents will have a chance to address the board at that meeting, she said board meetings traditionally have a public comment period at the beginning.

The board went into the closed door session Tuesday night to discuss a letter from the teachers' union requesting that the board and the union enter "impact bargaining" to negotiate issues affecting teachers as a result of the change in the school calendar.

Before beginning those negotiations, though, teachers have asked the school board to revisit its decision and have students attend school on June 11, 12 and 13, after graduation. The union made a similar recommended, that graduation remain on June 8 and that seniors attend school for three days the week after graduation. This would give seniors the opportunity to attend 180 days of school, the minimum that towns must provide under state law.

High School Principal Stephen Murphy has opposed having seniors attend school June 11, 12, and 13, saying it would create havoc with graduation practice, exams and regular classroom instruction for other students. He said if school could not end on June 8, he would rather see graduation moved to June 15.

Teachers' union president Gretchen Noonan has told the board that the issues that need to be considered include: the number of students who have vacation plans for April vacation; the difficulty in finding and hiring qualified substitutes; the cost of substitutes; the effect on instructional continuity and quality; and the climate and morale of the staff and teaching faculty.

Two weeks ago, the board voted to keep graduation on June 8 and eliminate April 11, 12 and 13 from the upcoming vacation to make up for the three days that school was closed after Tropical Storm Irene. The board made the decision after seniors and their parents urged the board not to change the date of graduation because it would jeopardize the ability of family and friends to attend the ceremony.

It also would endanger plans for the all-night graduation party. Party organizers said they likely would lose their $3,000 deposit if the date were changed.

It was later learned that the original 2011-12 school calendar adopted by the Board of Education violated state law because it set a specified graduation date, June 8, but did not have the 185 school days the state requires when a specific graduation date is set.

The decision has created a controversy, as many parents say their children will not be in class April 11-13 because they have made travel plans. Some parents who do not have plans say they are worried about what will be taught those during three days if large numbers of students and teachers are absent.

As of Monday, according to preliminary district figures, 62 of the district's 260 teachers or certified staff planned to be absent on April 11; 59 on April 12; and 52 on April 13. With substitutes costing $80 per day, the school system could be looking at a bill of almost $14,000. A few of those positions, though, would not have to be filled by substitutes.

Between 80 percent and 100 percent of the substitutes needed have been secured for all the schools except for the high school, where about 73 percent have been secured.

The fact that a large number of teachers may be absent from school also has raised questions in terms of the contract between the school system and teachers.

Allowing more than one or two teachers per school to take two personal days off at the same time violates the contract. In addition, the contract does not specify that teachers are paid for personal days as it does for other types of leave. Superintendent of Schools Leanne Masterjoseph has said that in the past, personal days have been paid when approved, and MacDonald has said that when a contract does not specifically prohibit something, then it is typically allowed.

Teachers also are required by contract to be involved in 182 days of teaching, but with the board's change to the calendar, they will only teach 180 days because school would end for all students on June 8, a half day. Some residents have asked whether teachers, who work a total of 187 days, would be paid for those two days.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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