Longer Thanksgiving break, earlier August start? Anchorage School Board split on school calendar

Six Anchorage School Board members were split Monday night over whether to approve a 2019-20 school calendar that would extend Thanksgiving break by three days and move the first day of school three days earlier. The board pushed a decision to its meeting Oct. 8.

"There are a lot of people that were counting on us to pass a calendar at this meeting," Starr Marsett, board president, said after the board rejected the proposed calendar in a 3-3 vote.

The board on Monday was considering calendars for the next three school years. A calendar committee that included district administrators, staff and community members proposed the calendars for 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22. The proposed calendars mirror the past dozen, except they move teacher and student start dates three days earlier in August and make Thanksgiving break three days longer, said a memo from the Anchorage School District superintendent to the board.

Student and staff absences are higher than average on the three days leading up to the current, two-day Thanksgiving break, the memo said. But some board members raised concerns about starting school earlier in August and about impacts to child care and classroom instruction if the break in November is extended.

"I know the numbers for absenteeism and I think that's compelling, but it's a huge chunk of time for parents who aren't going out of town," said board member Alisha Hilde.

Board member Dave Donley proposed amending the calendars by shifting parent-teacher conferences and a professional development day in February as well as pushing back spring break in March. That way, he said, students have off the first Friday of Fur Rondy. There's also more time between spring break and the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

"We shouldn't put parents in a situation of choosing between going to the start of Iditarod or starting your vacation a couple days early," Donley said.

Donley's amendment failed in a 2-4 vote, with Donley and Hilde voting in favor of the changes and board members Andy Holleman, Deena Mitchell, Elisa Snelling and Marsett voting against them.

The board then decided to vote on just the 2019-20 proposed calendar at the meeting instead of all three.

Under that calendar, Thanksgiving break would stretch from Nov. 25 to Nov. 29 next school year. Teachers' first day of school would fall on Aug. 12 and students' first day on Aug. 15. This year, teachers started Aug. 15 and students started Aug. 20.

During last school year, 6.7 percent of students were absent on average each day, according to the district. On the Monday before Thanksgiving break, that increased to 7.9 percent of students absent, rising to 8.3 percent the next day and 10.5 percent the day after that. The average absenteeism rate for teachers over those three days was 10.3 percent, compared to a 6.3 percent overall daily average, according to the district.

The board ultimately rejected the proposed 2019-20 calendar in 3-3 vote. Board members Holleman, Mitchell and Marsett voted for the calendar, while board members Hilde, Donley and Snelling voted against it.

The seventh board member, Bettye Davis, was absent. She has resigned from the board because of her health and to spend more time with her family, Marsett announced at Monday's meeting. The remaining board members will select someone to fill the seat.

The school board is expected to again vote on the school calendars at its next meeting, on Oct. 8. That's also when the board says it will vote on whether to change school start times. The superintendent has recommended having high schools start and end 30 minutes later, middle schools start and end one hour and 15 minutes later and elementary schools start and end 15 minutes earlier.

If the board decides to change start times, the new schedules would go into effect next school year.

[What parents need to know about the Anchorage School Board's upcoming decision on school start times]

On Monday, a majority of the board members said they either planned to vote against the changes or were leaning toward voting that way.

Holleman and Donley said they leaned toward voting against changing start times. But Holleman said the board still wanted to hear from the community about the impacts of the proposed changes, and Donley said he would keep an open mind until hearing the public testimony at the next meeting.

Marsett said she would not support the proposed changes. There's not enough research about impacts to elementary students and the district isn't ready for the change, she said. Snelling said "unless something comes up in the next few weeks," she's against changing start times. There are bigger issues that need to be addressed to help kids, she said.

"My request to the board again is the same as the last one: Do what we need to do over the next two weeks. Make sure we come back ready to have a vote because we've got so many other things we have got to get working on. This has taken up so much time and resource," Snelling said.

Mitchell said she'd like to see high school schedules changed by more than 30 minutes. Hilde said changing school start times would benefit all students.

"It takes a bit of courage to have people mad at you," Hilde said. "But I promise they will be mad no matter what we decide. So you are free to do what's best for kids."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.