State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-143), ranking member of the General Assembly’s Education Committee, gave kudos to Wilton’s superintendent of schools Dr. Kevin Smith for testifying against the regional school calendar mandate at a March 7 public hearing in Hartford. His testimony, which was supported by presentations from his colleagues in Weston and Westport, was instrumental in defeating a new proposal that would have made the mandate even more onerous, according to a press release from her office.

Smith was joined by Weston superintendent Dr. Colleen Palmer, and Westport superintendent Dr. Elliott Landon, as well as Dr. Joseph Cirasuolo, president of the CT Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) in testifying in person at the Education Committee’s public hearing. Their testimony was critical of both the existing calendar mandate and of HB 5556, a new bill that would have reduced the transportation grant of any district not adopting a regional calendar. With no testimony supporting the new bill except that of its proponent, the House Speaker, it died in the Education Committee.

In 2013, legislators in Hartford passed a law requiring adoption of uniform regional school calendars, despite local efforts by school officials (including Smith), as well as opposition in Hartford by Wilton’s legislators. The mandate has come under criticism by Wilton school officials and parents who would like the district to have more flexibility in setting school vacations and start dates.

During his testimony about HB 5556, Smith told the Education Committee, “The mandated calendar denies us the flexibility to craft a schedule that addresses our district’s unique circumstances. Schools are about the communities they serve, and we ought to be able to address the priorities and needs of our students and their families. While perhaps well meaning, the mandated regional calendar blocks us from this objective, and has, with all due respect, become an onerous mandate. It is, quite frankly, a solution to a problem that does not exist. We respectfully ask that you reject HB 5556, as well as the underlying concept of the regional school calendar.”

The existing regional calendar mandate takes effect for the 2016-2017 academic year beginning this fall. In response to the serious concerns of most Fairfield County districts, Lavielle has opposed the mandate legislation since its introduction and passage in 2013 without a public hearing. In 2014, she introduced successful legislation to postpone its effective date–originally the 2015-16 academic year–by one year. This year she has worked together with CAPSS to obtain data on statewide reactions to the mandate and to alert educators to the opportunity to express their views at the March public hearing.

“The regional calendar mandate has aroused strong disapproval from educators and Boards of Education not only in Fairfield County, where most districts oppose it, but also across the state,” Lavielle says. “They have told us that it’s impractical, that it won’t achieve its ostensible purpose of saving districts money, and that it will have a negative impact on teaching and learning. While I am pleased that we succeeded in defeating HB 5556, I will continue to press for a change in the existing law to allow districts to opt out of the regional calendar mandate. I thank our local superintendents and their colleagues statewide for their vigorous advocacy, which I hope will play a major role in influencing that outcome.”

In his testimony at the hearing, CAPSS president Cirasuolo cited a CAPPS statewide survey of superintendents conducted earlier this year. Of the 79 superintendents who responded, 89-percent said that they did not anticipate any cost savings as a result of implementing the uniform regional school calendar.

Fairfield County superintendents who testified at the hearing noted both the practical and educational issues created by the calendar mandate.

Stressing the calendar’s impact on teaching and learning, Weston superintendent Palmer said, “The calendar prohibits districts from designing optimal annual learning calendars for the year that integrate the placement of student time and teacher professional development in a manner that is most effective. Districts cannot differentiate the school year by age/needs of student, special programs, or special needs of the district. The ability of districts to innovate in their approach in creating learning pathways that permit extended-year schedules or all-year instructional models is severely limited.”

Westport superintendent Landon said, “With this unfortunate unfunded mandate, the legislature has expressed its disdain for allowing any school district in every community to create a calendar based upon its own very special local culture, local traditions, and local needs. [The regional calendar] was originally intended to save on transportation costs through regional cooperation and by reducing the cost of professional development. That proved to be unrealistic, purely wishful thinking, indeed. I am here to urge the members of this Committee to do your best to undo in its entirety the unfunded mandate of a regional uniform school calendar.”

Lavielle says she will continue working with members of the education community and legislators from both parties to find a way to undo or provide relief from the regional calendar mandate.

NOTE:  HB 5556 did pass unanimously in the Education Committee, but only after all language regarding the regional school calendar had been stricken from the bill, which is now titled “An Act Concerning Magnet School Reimbursement for New London.”