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Opinion Letters An Open Letter to Dr. Dan Brigman

Dear Dr. Brigman,

I have several questions that I have not been able to get from your office for some time. I hope that you can help me. I have questions about our 2012-2013 calendar. I have tried for a month to obtain information vital to thoroughly consider this calendar. In an effort to prevent another contested school calendar, I am hoping that you or the board may be able to answer these questions.

(1) I began trying to obtain information on Jan. 30 regarding the exact data and dates upon which Macon County Schools is basing its request for a weather waiver for the 2012-2013 school year. I understand that this is public record, and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction directed me to your office because they are not provided with the information that I am seeking. I asked for the dates of school closures, both full and partial days. I haven't asked for anything that I can't imagine isn’t sitting in a filing cabinet or on some one's hard drive. So, here, publicly, can you provide us with dates and number of days that each of the 11 schools in the county have missed for the past 10 years? I am only asking for the data upon which the waiver request is based.

(2) One of the arguments you and the board made last year was that we needed to implement the "year-round/intersession" calendar in 2011- 2012 without further discussion because of the opening of Iotla Valley School in 2012. You and the board repeatedly said that a short summer in 2012 would be detrimental because at least eight weeks is needed to move all the furniture and books from the existing Iotla Valley school to the new one.

However, the contractor recently informed you that the school won't be ready for teachers to move into until July 9 at the earliest. If we go with the calendar you're recommending to the board, kids will be back in school Aug. 6. How does that work? Were you mistaken last spring when you said we needed the extra time? Have we come up with a way to move everything more than twice as fast as last year? Should we be looking at a later start given the amount of moving that must take place? What will we do if the contractor is wrong about his finish date and we have no cushion left?

(3) Classes don't begin at Southwestern for the fall term until Aug. 15. I’m told that North Carolina Virtual Public School won't start until Aug. 27. Why must students enrolled in one or both sit around and do nothing for up to two weeks? I thought the goal of Macon County Schools was to sync with the Southwestern calendar. What about students at Macon Early College — aren't many of their classes at Southwestern? What do they do for those 10 days? The records repeatedly show that statements were made that a school start date of Aug. 25 or later interfered with these programs. Yet, pushing the school start date to early August start did not correct that problem. Nothing changed. As a parent of a high school child enrolled in these programs, I would like to know how you will remedy this situation for the “best interest of the children.” Sitting in a classroom and goofing off for two weeks, as they did this past school start year, is not what I consider productive.

(4) There a partial week in October? Are we doing intersession again, even though funding has been reduced and some of the board members have said they don't think was worth it? If we're not going to do intersession, then why have two short weeks — one in October and another Thanksgiving week? Many parents may take their kids out the whole week both of those weeks since it looks like they are set up for vacations. It appears the school system calendar is now about scheduling vacations rather than education.

The North Carolina General Assembly wants children in school for 185 days next year so they learn more. I understand that. But I don't understand adding days only when they are going to be wasted as it seems we're getting ready to do with the two fall breaks.

(5) Regarding the process to create the calendar, I’m told there were five calendar choices presented to the teachers and principals, but no group of teachers or parents was ever invited to help design of these five choices. I understand no teacher or parent knows everything about the calendar laws, but I think more teachers and parents could support the final calendar if they had a hand in actually designing the choices. Why can't any parent or teacher who wants to show up to the calendar meetings have a say? We simply want to have our concerns sincerely heard.

(6) I estimate the district has spent or will spend about $300,000 since last summer on the Lindamood-Bell program. I arrive at that figure by taking the money spent last summer on the program and summer teacher pay, plus the $225,000 the district allocated last September and the $14,000 the board spent a month ago for more teacher training. That's a lot of money. As tight-fisted as I am, I can support that, if that really is the best way to teach the youngest students reading. But Lindamood- Bell is “for profit,” so how much of that roughly 300,000 is corporate profit compared to how much is spent on services our students actually get? Is that the best use of our increasingly scarce dollars? It is said that a benefit of the Lindamood-Bell program is that the class sizes are small. Is that the main reason the kids in those classes seem to do well? How many teachers could have been hired with $300,000, which would keep the money here locally? Why is the forprofit program better than our not-for-profit teachers, teacher assistants and tutors? I have also asked about the Read 180 program that apparently was all the rage in Macon County Schools. We paid good money for it but then shoved it aside like last year's toy when Lindamood-Bell came along. I haven't been able to get an answer from your office as to how much we spent on that program and what, if anything, we are doing with it now.

Please understand that I am a parent who believes whole-heartedly in public schools and what they can accomplish. I know your job is hard, as it is for all the folks who report to you. I believe, in general, everyone does a good job. I, along with other parents, am concerned about making the best choices we can as a county for our children. I believe that the only way that can happen is to be fully informed on a timely basis. We shouldn't have to read about decisions that have been made that affect our children after it is too late to have meaningful input. That kind of cold shoulder keeps parents too distant from their kids' education. Don't just give us pre-selected choices to chew on. Please let us help design the choices — not just the calendar choices, but also the programs we purchase and let us compare those programs to what an extra teacher or assistant could do. I think your teachers and staff can bring great insight to the table if they have the opportunity to share their input.

Please share more information with us and let all of us who are dedicated to seeing our children get the best possible education be involved. Let us work together to make the tough choices we have to make as we work our way through this downturn in the economy and the sometimes negative attitude toward public education from those in the legislature.

At a time when teachers, principals and superintendents complain about the lack of parent involvement, the best thing to do is to invite any interested parent to policy-making, calendar-making and budget meetings, not just a select few. I don't think you have to worry about the room not having enough chairs, but wouldn't that be an awesome problem to have?


Sabrina Hawkins — Highlands, NC

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