The announcement made by Premier Brad Wall last Thursday regarding a mandate he would implement to not start the kindergarten to Grade 12 school year until after Labour Day, every year, drew some swift and not always supporting commentary from the education community.
While visiting with Saskatoon Tourism officials on the the campaign trail last week, Wall noted the growth of tourism in Saskatchewan and promised to double the funding for that sector if his government were re-elected. He said the commitment to tourism had already exceeded the previous amount.
Wall noted he had received several requests from tourism as well as parents to have the summer vacation period extended every year so that no school division would begin an academic calendar year before Labour Day. Tourism, the argument went, suffers when students who are often staffing various venues, have to return to the classroom earlier than Labour Day and families have their final days of summer, including the last long weekend, spoiled by the need to return home early.
Wall stated that if his Sask. Party were returned as the majority in the Legislature he would move to make the change in time for the 2012-13 school year. That announcement was greeted by cheers in some corners and with criticism in others.
“I'm quite concerned. Decisions of this nature have resided in the hands of school boards for decades and it's now in the hands of the premier and the Tourism Ministry,” said Marc Casavant, director of education for the South East Cornerstone Public School Division. “I found it a bit bizarre and now we're just wondering what else is coming?” he added.
Casavant said from a board perspective, he felt the local trustees had provided clear direction and careful thought to the needs of students, parents and staff when making their decisions regarding the school calendar and in fact, the mandate they had already given to administration was to once again come up with two or three alternatives with one of those being a start of the school year after Labour Day next year.
“I guess we weren't getting it right and the Ministry of Tourism does,” Casavant said.
If the school year always has to start after Labour Day, meaning Sept. 8 in some years, the director said there could be a number of consequences and implications such as a cancellation of the traditional February break or shorter holiday period at Christmas or Easter.
Casavant said the school divisions have to schedule a 200-day school calendar, which in essence becomes a 197-day calendar and most divisions already struggle to meet the total teaching minutes that are required.
“So do we have to look past June 30 to finish the school year? Then we get involved with the July 1 holiday,” Casavant said, noting that options suddenly become less flexible. It leaves school systems with the alternatives such as lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year or reducing credit programs.
He also pointed out that if the decision was a response to parents wanting an extended summer vacation period, then it should include the 13,000 teachers in the province, many of whom are parents.
Most of them are in families. Teachers have to come back for one or two days of in-service and professional development workshops prior to the start of the school year. Do they come in before Labour Day and still spoil the last long weekend for their families, or would the school divisions be expected to schedule those start-up professional development days after Labour Day too?
“So I guess my other response is that if they want to dip their hands in to improve conditions for students, then they should be prepared to define what it is they really want. If it is setting the school calendar, then there are ramifications to that. The Education Ministry has to monitor instructional time so we'll need to know how to meet auditors' expectations for instructional time. Do we have to shorten February breaks or eliminate them? They'll have to tell us because even as it is now, we can't meet the criteria for instructional time and that affects achievement scores,” Casavant said.
Casavant said he wondered if this was another step toward the erosion of school board autonomy that was compromised two years ago when local boards were no longer allowed to establish mill rates for local funding. That was something Carol Flynn, Cornerstone's board chairwoman, also feared.
“We were blindsided by this announcement.I did know tourism was looking for it, but I wonder how much consideration has gone into the need for student contact days. I do fear that this is taking away more school board autonomy,” Flynn said. “Have all the implications been thought out? If this decision goes through, it will make for more difficult choices.”
Flynn said she didn't feel any trustee was necessarily opposed to post Labour Day starts, and in fact several are vocal advocates of the move, including some Cornerstone members, but they all were sensitive to the fact that it might not be in the division's best interest to have a post Labour Day start every year.
“I've heard that the Saskatchewan School Boards Association was also blindsided with this,” Flynn said.
“At this stage, I'm a little bit perplexed and uncertain as to what the future holds when these decisions are made that don't fit in with what we're trying to do in terms of meeting criteria. Are there bigger plans? We're left wondering what's driving the educational sector these days?” said Casavant.
“The business and education sectors have to work together to be successful. There is no issue if it can fit in with a bigger plan, but this decision was made in isolation and we're left wondering whether this is just one issue and it's done, or what else is going to happen? Those who made that decision have to realize we have to deal with instructional minutes, we have employees who need to be consulted. We have unions and their contracts to deal with that would have to be changed. There are three or four irons in the fire right now that require leadership from the Education Ministry and I don't think this decision is addressing those needs,” Casavant said in conclusion.
Across Canada, British Columbia and Manitoba have legislation that mandates the start of the school year on the Tuesday after Labour Day. The other provinces adopt school calendar years one, two or three years in advance according to needs.