Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

Parent and community representatives speaking at Thursday night’s meeting of the Baker School Board appeared evenly split between preferring a four- or five-day student school week next year.

The four-day group was bolstered by a petition signed by 366 people who support the current four-day schedule, which is in its sixth year.

School Board Chairman Kevin Cassidy moved the public comment period ahead on the agenda so that many of the 40 or so people who filled the District Office conference room could leave afterward if they wanted.

Cassidy praised the efforts of those who made calls and sent emails to express their preference for the current school schedule or for a possible move to a five-day schedule with early release on Fridays for students.

Cassidy said he appreciated the tone of the communication, which was “succinct, heartfelt, not vitriol and not attacking.”

“That helps us be better informed about where the community stands,” he said.

The Board listened to comments but took no action during the meeting. Superintendent Mark Witty said during his report to the board Thursday night that negotiations are just beginning with the classified employees (maintenance, paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers and other noncertified staff) and teachers.

The two groups have separate unions and contracts.

The entire contract for the classified staff is being negotiated with Oregon School Employee Association representatives.

The Board and members of the teachers’ union, the Baker Education Association, are discussing parts of the contract dealing with salary, benefits, the school calendar and professional development. The current three-year contract continues through June 30, 2019.

Under the current contract, the Board has the authority to retain the four-day student week or move to a five-day student week.

The petition supporting the four-day week was circulated after Witty sent a letter to Dawn O’Grady, president of the Baker Education Association, which he said was intended to be “the start of a conversation as we move toward negotiations.”

While the Board has made no decisions regarding the 2017-18 calendar, Witty’s letter stated that “from the District’s perspective, the current contract language related to the 5-day student week provides more opportunities to attain the District Goals.”

The letter was posted on Facebook along with promotion of the four-day week petition and a message urging people to attend Thursday’s meeting to express their support for the four-day week.

Directors Melissa Irvine and Chris Hawkins represent the Board in negotiations with teachers. The next bargaining session is set for March 20.

Witty said today that he was happy with the comments from community members during Thursday’s meeting.

“I was pleased with the turnout, commitment and the heartfelt testimony,” Witty said. “We are charged with trying to make the best decision possible as we move forward.”

Witty declined to comment on negotiations with teachers.

As part of the public comment Thursday, Will Benson, who had served on the District’s budget committee, resigned from that position.

Benson said he had been frustrated by the lack of communication from the District regarding his role.

“I don’t feel like I’m being included,” Benson said. “And I’m frustrated with that.”

Benson, a Baker High School graduate who attended a five-day schedule with early release on Friday during the 1990s, said he remembers Fridays, with early release, being a waste of time.

He encouraged the Board to retain the four-day schedule for the sake of students.

Benson said he was disappointed that he wasn’t informed of the Board’s recent decision to buy property on Main Street and on Hughes Lane, which left him unable to respond to questions from community members who knew he served on the budget committee.

Benson encouraged the Board to be more transparent with the community if they hope to raise money to build new schools.

“I’m forced to resign my position on the budget board today,” he said. “I wish you luck. My kids are students here and I want them to be successful. I want all of our kids to be successful.”

Witty said today that Benson had opportunities to participate in meetings at school buildings this year and budget committee meetings last spring.

“I’m a little disappointed he didn’t engage,” Witty said. “I’m sure he had reasons.”

Heidi Dalton and Coby Mastrude were the first to address the board speaking for the petitioners in favor of a four-day week.

Dalton is CEO of the Baker County YMCA. She is the mother of two daughters who attend Haines School where she has volunteered weekly for the past seven years.

Dalton also serves as the vice chair, secretary and treasurer of the Baker Charter Schools Board. She urged the Board to retain the four-day student week as the Friday Academy programs, which started last fall, develop.

“The district has actively engaged staff and community partners, the program is gaining momentum, and parents and students are excited about the possibilities,” she said.

The flexibility of a four-day week allows families to participate in a variety of other programs offered in the community, Dalton said.

She suggested the District spend expected revenue from the Baker Charter Schools of about $1.2 million for expansion of the Friday Academy programs.

“The four-day student week with optional Friday Academy programs is the model the majority of our community wants for our children,” she said.

Mastrude, who has two boys in Baker schools, pointed to research from Georgia State University and Montana State University that support a four-day week.

“I believe it is presumptuous to think that just because more days are spent in school that it must be better for students,” she said.

Kim Mosier, who also has two children in the Baker schools, said the flexibility of a four-day student week works well for her.

“But I can’t just focus on what is most comfortable for my family,” she said.

Mosier pointed to recent reports she has found in looking for data on the topic.

An article on the Brookings Institution education website from March 3 titled “A Troubling Contagion: The rural 4-day school week,” states that the system is contagious because adults like it not because of its benefit for students.

See more in the March 10, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.