Tough questions asked about new high school scheduleAn increasing number of parents, teachers, students and even a school board member or two say they think District 833 rushed its decision on changing the high school schedule, and they’re questioning the motivation.
By: Louise Ernewein, South Washington County Bulletin
An increasing number of parents, teachers, students and even a school board member or two say they think District 833 rushed its decision on changing the high school schedule, and they’re questioning the motivation.
In September, the South Washington County Schools Board members said they would drop the current, four-period, four-half-semester (4 X 4) schedule and replace it with a six-period, three-trimester (6 X 3) schedule in East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools.
As a concession to concerned students and parents, school board members said they would delay implementation of the new schedule by one year, to 2010.
Since the decision was made, the Bulletin has spoken with a number of people who say:
n Parents, teachers and students were left uninformed that the schedule could change and that the school district, by holding meetings over the summer, ensured public opposition to the changes would be minimal.
n The school district is making the change from the more expensive 4 X 4 schedule to the cheaper 6 X 3 schedule for financial reasons, although school officials insist the schedule is changing only to provide the best education for students.
n Teachers were told not to speak publicly about their opposition to the changes, and to give the impression they supported the move even if their feelings were otherwise.
n The task force charged with making a recommendation on the best high school schedule was given parameters designed to ensure the 6 X 3 schedule was the only possible outcome.
Officials at School District 833 strenuously deny these claims, but parents and teachers are asking the board to reconsider its decision, or, at the very least, hold a town hall-style question and answer session with the public to explain the motivation behind selecting the 6 X 3 schedule in more detail.
At the most recent District 833 School Board meeting on Oct. 23, Chris Dease, a teacher from Woodbury High School, presented a survey to the board showing that 81 percent of 76 teachers who responded to an anonymous survey were opposed to change from the 4 X 4 schedule to the 6 X 3.
Dease asked the board to reconsider its Sept. 25 decision, but a motion by board member Denise Kapler failed to find a second, although school board member Jim Gelbmann indicated he would have seconded the motion if he had not been prevented from doing so by public meeting rules (he had opposed the initial motion on Sept. 25).
District 833 superintendent Tom Nelson, who announced his retirement next June earlier this school year, says people are now complaining publicly about the process of choosing the 6 X 3 because they were unhappy with the outcome.
“It’s a final decision and it’s a good decision,” he added. “Many extremely good school districts operate with six-period days.”
Here, the Bulletin takes a look at some of the issues raised by concerned members of the community.
n Public involvement and input?
Parents and teachers have complained that the process leading to the adoption of the 6 X 3 schedule was rushed and lacked public involvement.
Although the high school redesign group had been meeting for a year already, the schedule task force, which was an offshoot of that group, only met for the first time in mid-July.
“There just wasn’t enough public involvement,” said one teacher at Woodbury High School, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The process needed to be like the selection of the school colors (at East Ridge) — they put more time into that than this.”
She added she felt the timing of the formation of the schedule task force was deliberate because it was at a time when teachers were away from colleagues and pre-occupied with non-school matters.
But the District 833 superintendent, Tom Nelson, says members of the community were given ample opportunity to have their say on the subject.
“It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone,” he said. “Everyone had an opportunity to come in and voice their concerns and opinions to myself and I know that (assistant superintendent) Dr. Zipf met with both high school faculties and allowed them to ask all the questions that they wanted…
“If you don’t like the decision, attack the process, and I think that is kind of what has happened.”
n Financially motivated?
School board member Gelbmann, who opposed dropping the 4 X 4 schedule, said he supported parents’ and teachers’ efforts to ask the board to reconsider its decision.
He added the District 833 superintendent, Tom Nelson, had instructed the board at a workshop meeting prior to the decision that if the members wished to implement a new schedule at middle schools, going from six-period days to eight-period days, the 4 X 4 high school schedule would have to go.
“He called the 4 X 4 the Cadillac schedule that we couldn’t afford to provide any more, and I disagreed with that,” said Gelbmann. “We are in a very financially healthy position right now.”
Nelson disputes that the decision has anything to do with money.
“Not a bit,” he said, responding to the suggestion that the adoption of the 6 X 3 schedule may have been financially motivated.
“The recommendation was made purely on getting kids ready to meet state guidelines (on educational standards). It had nothing to do with finances.”
Gelbmann, who is the Deputy Secretary of State, said he had heard from task force participants looking at the question of the new schedules at both high and middle schools in the district, that it ended up being a budget balancing procedure in some respects.
“They were told … they had to be cost neutral,” he said. “Therefore, since the middle school schedule they were aiming for, the 8 X 3, was going to be more expensive by about $1 million, they had to find a way to cut about $1 million from the high school schedule and really, the only way to do that was to move away from the 4 X 4 block schedule.”
Assistant superintendent Randy Zipf, who helped steer both task forces through the process of recommending a preferred schedule, said the suggestion that cost was a motivating factor in the recommendation of the 6 X 3 schedule was quite wrong.
“That was not the case,” he said. “The middle school task force and the high school task force operated somewhat independently.
“While there were some people on both committees, they operated independently and cost was not seen as an issue except to say, ‘You can’t go outside of what you are currently doing in terms of funding.’”
n Staff opposition muted?
One teacher at Woodbury High School said public debate on the subject had been stifled, thanks to the school district administration.
“We were told not to speak publicly about this by (assistant superintendent) Randy Zipf because we would cause alarm,” she explained.
“The message was, ‘Don’t disagree with this because then the public will cause a ruckus and then there will be problems.’”
Zipf, who conducted two lengthy meetings with staff at both Woodbury and Park high schools to explain the schedule change and to answer questions, said he had only instructed teachers they were not to use classroom time inappropriately to lobby students to take action on the issue.
“At no meeting was the staff told not to speak to others about it,” he said. “They have their rights to speak about it and their point of view.”
Another teacher at Woodbury High School told a similar story to her colleague.
“It was one of those odd situations where it was said, ‘We don’t care what your beliefs are: Stand by us and stand strong,’” she explained. “I don’t think I have ever heard that before in the district.”
Superintendent Nelson disputed the claims.
“There were many e-mails sent and phone calls made to board members directly from staff, so if they were told that (not to speak out) — which they weren’t — they sure didn’t listen to it,” said Nelson.
n Outcome predetermined?
Mrinal Bhattacharya, a professor at the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota, said he had attended a school board workshop on the schedule changes on Sept. 18 and sat through testimony after testimony of parents, students and teachers who spoke passionately in favor of the 4 X 4 schedule.
“When I left, I said this (the 6 X 3 proposal) is dead,” said Bhattacharya. “Then, the next week, I found out they had decided to vote for it. I almost had to pinch myself.”
Bhattacharya’s daughter is just entering ninth grade, and his concern is that she will have to take honors biology and advanced placement biology in separate years under the 6 X 3 schedule, whereas she currently could take both in one year under the block schedule.
“Except for one person, I haven’t seen any person who has anything negative to say about the 4 X 4,” he added. “The fact of the matter is, I haven’t seen anything on the 6 X 3 for me to know how that system even works.
“For everyone I have spoken to, parents and kids, the 4 X 4 works really well.”
Superintendent Nelson said he felt people were attacking the process by which the decision had been reached because they were unhappy with the outcome.
“They (the task force) looked at a whole bunch of schedules — six to seven schedules were examined before we got to this point,” he said.
But school board member Gelbmann said he had been approached by a number of people unhappy with that process.
“I’ve been a strong supporter of the 4 X 4 ever since we moved to the 4 X 4, 10 or 11 years ago. I think it serves the high school students well,” he explained.
“As for whether the outcome was pre-determined, it’s hard for me to say but I have heard the same complaint from parents who were on the task force and say they really weren’t given a lot of choice.”
n The way forward?
One parent who has been following the issue closely is Beejay Zager, a Woodbury resident of 18 years.
Her son is a junior at Woodbury High School and so will be the last class of students to experience the 4 X 4 schedule.
That said, Zager said she is still taking a keen interest in the subject as a concerned taxpayer in South Washington County.
“My concern was that the presentation and communication to the public at large for this process was severely lacking,” she said.
“I think it would be very valuable to have a town hall-style meeting where the students and parents who still have questions could have a question and answer period with the taskforce committee.
“We are told it’s going to happen and we are told it’s for the … ‘optimal student learning’ were the words Randy Zipf used in his presentation.
“Well, tell me why you think that, because it doesn’t feel like that to me right now; I feel like my son has been wildly successful in the 4 X 4 schedule.”
A number of teachers, who favor retaining the 4 X 4 schedule but modifying it to include features desired by the school district, would like the school board to look again at the issue.
Zager added she felt frustrated at comments made by a couple of school board members, in which members of the public were told, “Trust us,” or “We’ve already heard all this before.”
“Neither one of those comments really reassured me,” said Zager. “What I would really like to see the school board do, and what I’m really going to push for (is this).
“Why can’t we get together and have this really open discussion, because this has never really happened.”