Many Montgomery County parents are angry. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is standing firm. The parents took a survey. He's ignoring it, they say. Some are even threatening a boycott.
The issue in contention?
The school calendar. Or, more precisely, when it should begin. Before Labor Day or after.
Parents say after. They want the last week of summer with their kids. They want to take family vacations. Congress is out and most of the federal government is gone in August, and many parents want to be, too.
"Neither the president nor Congress, which enacted the No Child Left Behind Act, is likely to return from their vacations early to attend to the nation's business. Why can't our children follow their example?" parent Liz Winthnell wrote to board members.
But Weast says before is the way to go. Starting on Aug. 26 instead of Sept. 2 next year gives students four more days to prepare for the slew of high-stakes exams that the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires.
"The more instruction that our students receive prior to taking state assessments will result in a higher level of achievement for our students," Weast wrote in a recent memo to board members. "The primary focus of the calendar must be on the educational priorities of the school system. The school calendar is designed to support student achievement."
And the school board unanimously agreed with him, voting at their Dec. 10 meeting to start school on Aug. 26, before Labor Day, and end June 16. School also started this school year before Labor Day.
Board president Patricia O'Neill had the staff do some research. For five of the last 10 years Montgomery County has started school before Labor Day. And when comparing absentee rates, more students attend the first days of school (97.2 percent on Aug. 27 earlier this year), than the last (92.7 percent on June 20).
Further, 8,300 athletes are back practicing Aug. 15, as are 1,200 students in marching bands or majorettes.
The controversy, to O'Neill, seemed like little more than a tempest in a teapot. "You'd think half the parents in our school system worked on Capitol Hill," she said.
And then began the angry e-mails -- "This is a slap in the face" -- and telephone messages -- "they call this respecting parent input?" -- and calls for a boycott.
"Parents are really very upset," said Michelle Yu, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. "It's not convincing why the school has to choose a pre-Labor Day start. To say that four days will bring better test scores -- this is just not a justification for parents. This pre-Labor Day start ruined many families' plans."
Parents are angry not just because of the early start but because the school system first sought out their views -- then ignored them, Yu said.
This fall, school staff presented Yu and all other PTA leaders with two different school calendar proposals to get in the required 184 instructional school days. One began Sept. 2 and ended June 23. The other started Aug. 26 and ended June 16.
In survey after survey and straw poll after straw poll, parents countywide voted for the Sept. 2 start.
"It's not about the haves and have-nots," Yu said, deflecting criticism that the only parents who are upset are the ones who can afford expensive vacations. "This is across the county."