Vacations shorted to make up days from teacher strike

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Parents, students and educators knew that the delayed start of the school year in Tacoma would come at a price with either shorter breaks or extensions tacked onto the end of the year. Parental scuttlebutt also included some fears that school would be even held on Saturdays.

The latter didn’t happen, but the lost seven days from the strike comes at a cost – shorter Thanksgiving break, winter break and spring break to reach the state’s magic number of 182 instruction days.

“We wanted to do what is right for the students,” district spokesman Dan Voepel said. “What we said was, ‘What is best for students, and that is to have as much time in the classroom before those tests in the spring.’ I don’t know how we could do it any other way.”

News of the revised calendar exploded on social media, with many parents lamenting about either changing their vacation plans or facing missed school time for their children. Some fronted a conspiracy theory that the shorter breaks were meant to inconvenience parents and teachers for supporting the strike that gained salary increases for every level of teachers.

“We recognize that there are families who have made plans that they can’t get out of,” Voelpel said, noting that parents in such cases should contact their schools to make arraignments for those days and make sure missed days are at least recorded as excused. “There is no ‘best solution.’”

Holding school on Saturdays, which the district did during the strike in 2010, would have been disruptive, while tacking the full seven lost days at the end would affect schedules for graduating seniors. Having different schedules for elementary, middle and high schools would have, likewise, caused confusion for families with multiple children.

“There wasn’t going to be any schedule we could make where we could make everyone happy, so we decided on what was best for students,” Voepel said. “There is no ‘best solution.’”

The Thanksgiving break lost a day and is down to just two days with an early release day on Nov. 21, which still counts in the state’s educational formula.

Winter break starts on Monday Dec. 24 and runs through Jan. 3 instead of Jan. 4.

Spring break loses two days by starting Wednesday, April 3 instead of Monday, April 1. The last day of school is June 18.

The two remaining makeup days are the district’s two snow days, Feb. 15 and May 24, which are now school days. That could mean the school calendar might shift again if school days get canceled because of inclement weather, although the new snow days drag out the end of school to June 20. Nature might be on the side of that not happening.

“Winter will be warmer and much rainier than normal, with below-normal snowfall,” according to the Farmer’s Almanac. “The coldest periods will occur in early and late December, early January, and mid- and late February, with the snowiest periods in early January and mid-February.”

All of the talk about revised school schedules comes at a time when paraeducators are in negotiations over their wages. Their contract runs through the year but a clause in it allows the union to open negotiations over wages outside of the overall contract talks. The union exercised that clause following the McLeary decision that led to teacher salary increases courtesy of a new formula the state uses to fund public education.

That new formula, however, means that urban school districts like Tacoma actually get less money because it caps the amount it can receive from voter-approved levies. State lawmakers have pledge to “fix the formula” during the upcoming legislative session, but nothing is certain.

Tacoma School District is already facing a $17 million shortfall just for this school year from the increase in teacher and technical staff salaries, and a $38 million deficit for the 2019-2020 budget overall. Those numbers make talks of more wage increases problematic since increases mean cuts elsewhere, namely staff since 85 percent of the district’s budget is salary and benefits.

“You can’t solve the problem without affecting people,” Voepel said, noting that the district will first look at reductions of the administration’s support staff.

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