School vacations in February and April have been the norm in Maine for many years, and Regional School Unit 20 directors considered the difficulties that could come with initiating a change to that schedule at their regular meeting Oct. 12.

RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said the discussion regarding the possibility of including one week-long vacation in March in lieu of the February and April breaks was prompted by a suggestion from Director Peggy Andrews.

Though Andrews was not present at the Oct. 12 meeting, the board tackled the idea and considered how the district might initiate such change, should the board decide to head in that direction.

Mailloux said having one vacation in March would allow schools to let out for the summer four days sooner.

“It’s fairly common outside the state of Maine,” Mailloux said.

Mailloux said when the discussion of a potential change to school vacations had come up in the past, one concern for some in the community was how it might affect students’ ability to attend the annual high school basketball tournament games. The tournament games are typically played through February.

Mailloux’s response to that was that students could “take the day off and make it up later” should the district have a team earn a spot in the tournament.

When the topic of changing the school calendar came up about two years ago, Mailloux said, district staff took surveys about the possibility of changing the vacation schedule. Initially, the staff appeared to be receptive, but as more surveys were turned in to the Central Office, it became clear that the majority were not ready for that kind of change.

Mailloux estimated that about 60 percent of the staff opposed the change.

Perhaps the biggest influence on the board’s decision to keep the school calendars the same two years ago was the concern that was expressed by school nurses, Mailloux said, that February vacation fell in the midst of flu season, and was often a helpful rest period for students.

“They felt fairly strongly that we need the February vacations because it gives the kids a break,” said Mailloux, who noted that attendance rates after the February break were typically much lower than the weeks leading up to the winter vacation.

Director Joyce Chamberlin recalled another purpose for bringing up a change in the school calendar two years ago.

“Another concern was the number of actual weeks in the year where there was a full week of school,” said Chamberlin, who referred to in-service days and holidays as among the reasons for the shorter school weeks.

Chamberlin added that she, “would be hesitant to base a calendar on the possibility of an illness,” and that she had “somewhat of an issue” with planning a school calendar around a sporting event such as the basketball tournaments.

“Perhaps starting after Labor Day could provide as much continuity as possible,” she said.

Director Orya Shomron said the most important thing for a school calendar is to be supportive of the academic growth of the children the school district serves. Shomron suggested looking not only to school staff, but also to parents and students to see what such a change to the school vacation schedule might look like.

“We need information from all levels of the school community,” said Shomron.

Shomron said the board should develop a task force that includes teachers, administrators, parents and students to research what is known about academic performance, particularly how it relates to school vacations.

Director Gerry Reid asked if there was any state or federal agency that might have that information available for public use, as locating the data in that way might be easier than trying to generate it.

Mailloux said if there were any information available on that topic, it would likely come from the federal level.

Chamberlin said the district should strive to expand the number of school days for the year, rather than holding classes for the 175 days the state dictates as the minimum. She said many states have 190-day school years, and that might be worth considering for RSU 20.

Director Chris Krause said the only way to make change is to go through with an idea.

“The quickest way not to do something quickly is to set up a committee,” he said. “…This topic gets talked about a lot, and nothing gets done. I’d be in favor of doing something.”

Shomron countered that it was too early to make any decisions, and more information was needed before the board could make a choice.

“That’s what committees are formed for,” said Shomron.

She added that if the board set out guidelines to keep the committee on task, the process could move rather quickly.

Director Debora Riley noted that any lengthening of the school year would necessitate a contract negotiation with district staff.

Director Steve Kirkpatrick recalled his experiences living in Germany, where students graduate from high school at 16, and are given aptitude tests before going on to a university or trade school.

“We’re going to school 20 days less [per year] than they are in Europe,” he said. “… They don’t have a 12-grade system.”

Shomron said that any decision the board made on the school calendar should be made based on the district’s new vision and mission statement, which directors had unanimously adopted earlier in the meeting.

In other news, directors accepted a gift from Searsport District Middle School parents, who raised just over $1,000 to provide funding for SDMS boys’ and girls’ sixth- and seventh-grade basketball teams. The funding for the teams was cut from this year’s budget as a cost-saving measure. The parents raised the money within five days, and also secured one volunteer coach for the season.

Mailloux said the group had originally secured coaches for both teams, but one volunteer had a conflict and was unable to coach. Mailloux said the parents stated they could find another volunteer coach in time to start the season, and they were prepared to raise funds for a stipend should that be necessary.

The SDMS parents followed the lead of Belfast-area parents, who appeared at the Sept. 28 meeting with the $965 and volunteers needed to bring the boys’ and girls’ sixth- and seventh-grade basketball program back to Troy Howard Middle School.

Directors praised the parents for giving the middle school teams in Belfast and Searsport a chance to play this year.

“Play ball,” said Mailloux.