Two-week spring break just a ‘test’

The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District is hoping a proposed two-week spring break and coordinated timetable will put a dent in its $2.2 budget shortfall for the 2011/12 school year.

District superintendent Jan Unwin told dozens of parents, teachers, and support staff who attended School District No. 42’s school calendar information meeting Tuesday night at Thomas Haney secondary that the plan, expected to save the district $200,000, was necessary to help balance the district’s budget.

The proposed changes would see spring break extended from one week to two, with an additional day off on the Remembrance Day long weekend in November. To make up for the lost time, 10 minutes of instructional time would be added to each school day under a coordinated bell schedule. Elementary schools would be in session from 8:30 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., while secondary schools would be in session from 2:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. Currently, elementary schools across the district have varying school day lengths, many with an early dismissal on Fridays, while secondary schools are in session from 8:28 a.m. to 2:37 p.m.

However, many in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting expressed concern the plan wasn’t in the best interest of students.

Laura Tucker is a mother of two and worries that an extra week away from school could present a burden on vulnerable families who may not be able to pay for child care.

“I don’t want to see a loss of instructional days,” she said. “For [vulnerable children], more time away from school isn’t a good thing.”

Unwin said the district is looking at working with parks and leisure services to provide free or low-cost opportunities for vulnerable children, but did not provide any specific details.

Eight elementary schools in the district currently have early dismissals on Friday afternoons. Parents and teachers from those schools expressed concern about the early dismissals being taken away.

Unwin said the district is underfunded and needs to find savings in order to balance its budget, which it is required to do by law. She noted that a consultant’s report suggested there would be no adverse affect on student achievement by such a move. Currently 43 of 60 school districts across the province have already adopted a two-week spring break.

“But no matter what we decide to do, there will always be a contingent of unhappy people, and we realize that,” said Unwin.

Unwin also stressed the proposed calendar change would only be for the 2011/12 school year, and would be revisited on an annual basis.

“It’s a pilot project,” she said. “If we find it’s not working, we can change it.”

Three board trustees were present for the meeting: board chair Ken Clarkson, Kathy Ward and Susan Carr.

“Parents realize underfunding is the issue,” Clarkson said after the meeting. “I don’t think we would be having this conversation if education was being properly funded [by the provincial government].”

Parents are being asked to take part in an online survey about the proposed changes on the district’s website, at www.sd42.ca/calendar.

The district has received more than 1,300 responses to its online survey so far. Submissions will be accepted up until April 10.

Trustees will vote on the proposal at their April 13 board meeting.