Three Bel Air-area Girl Scouts not only observed Monday's meeting of the Harford County Board of Education as part of getting a citizenship badge, they became active participants by telling board members about the difficulties they face as students at elementary schools with fourth-tier busing schedules.
The school board also discussed new policies in setting the annual school calendar, approved a booster club purchase of a new baseball scoreboard at Fallston High School and honored Harford's two latest state championship teams.
Bel Air Elementary School students Brooke Santiago and Molly Abrams, and Red Pump Elementary student Ally Stump, who are members of Troop 993, spoke during the public comment portion of Monday's board business meeting.
Troop leader Lisa Spelker introduced the girls, who, along with their fellow troop members, are working to earn their Model Citizen Badge.
Spelker said the Scouts are required to "observe a governing body in action," and take part in "mock government meetings" about pressing local issues, such as those affecting students at fourth-tier schools with opening and closing times that are later than other schools.
Schools such as Bel Air and Red Pump were put on the fourth-tier schedule at the beginning of this school year, as Harford County Public Schools officials revamped bus routes to save money.
The fourth tier schools, of which there are seven, begin their day at 9:30 a.m. and end it 4 p.m. The other 26 elementary schools operate on a 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. schedule.
Parents and students have criticized board members since they approved several busing changes last June, including adding more elementary schools to the fourth-tier schedule, instituting "depot stops" for high school students in magnet programs and making some route consolidations. School officials also eliminated all waivers for students who are within the prescribed walking distance of their schools but had been using school buses because of issues such as potentially unsafe walking conditions.
Parents and students have complained at several board meetings that, collectively, the changes have resulted in more students walking to school or being dropped off by their parents instead of taking the bus.
The Girl Scouts who spoke Monday read from prepared remarks.
Brooke noted children have less time for homework and must rush to make it to after-school activities. She said "third-tier students do not have to rush as much.
"The late start also makes it hard for our parents to get to work on time," Ally said. "We often have to be taken to other people's houses in the morning for those extra 30 minutes, or we have to stand outside the school in the cold."
The girls also noted the dangers of crossing busy Bel Air streets, such as East Broadway, and a lack of parking for parents who are picking up or dropping off.
Molly took on another controversial topic that has angered parents and students this year – activity fees.
She said Bel Air Elementary could only field one Destination Imagination team because of the fees this year.
Destination Imagination is a poplar activity among students of all grades; they form teams and come up with creative solutions to problems involving STEM (science technology, engineering and mathematics) skills, as well as the arts and community service.
"Our teachers did not want to choose only eight students, so they decided not to have DI at all," she said. "We really miss it."
The girls also invited the board members to Bel Air Elementary's upcoming Patriot Assembly, scheduled for May 15.
Patrick Spicer, the school system's legal counsel, introduced a proposed policy change to the board Monday that, if approved, would take the responsibility of making recommendations regarding the school year calendar away from an ad hoc committee of school officials and people from the community.
Board members discussed the new policy at length but did not vote on it.
Though the new policy would appear to open the process up to the general public, school officials would be responsible for putting the calendar together and would have the final say on its contents, regardless of any such expanded public input.
Spicer said school officials would conduct an "electronic and social media outreach to the community."
Under current policy, the school board appoints a 25-member committee made up of school officials and community representatives to make recommendations about the proposed calendar.
The board members reviewed a draft calendar during a meeting in late November 2013, which included eight days to serve as make-up days for the inclement weather during the 2014-2015 school year.
The inclement weather days came at the suggestion of a parent member of the Ad Hoc Calendar Committee.
Calendars for future school years would be developed by school system staff and then be made available for public comment for 60 days before the board gives final approval.
"Because the calendar would be developed without the input of the committee, it would allow more time for public comment," Spicer told board members.
He also noted it would reduce the "timeline" for developing the calendar from 12 months to eight months.
"What we want to do is follow a model that would be not dissimilar to the one that we use with the budget," Superintendent Barbara Canavan explained.
Board member Alysson Krchnavy serves as a board liaison to the committee and represented the Harford County Council of PTAs on the committee before she was elected to the school board in 2008.
She noted the calendar is "tightly prescribed" between testing periods and mandated holidays, but she encouraged school officials to seek out public comment.
"This needs to be a truly driven public comment opportunity, as opposed to a tacit, put it out there and approve it 60 days later," Krchnavy said.
Canavan noted scheduling for coming school years will be even tighter as officials must handle a 20-day test period for the electronic PARCC assessments, part of the controversial Common Core Standards.
Spicer acknowledged "the service of the individuals [on the committee] has been very important and helpful," but stressed that "the latitude and discretion has really been compressed," regarding how the calendar is put together.
Canavan said that "if someone comes up with a wonderful idea that's going to be in the best interests of our children, it's certainly going to be entertained and looked at very carefully."
"If we're going to go down that road as a matter of policy, I would think that we really need to emphasize public input," board member Arthur Kaff said.
Board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo said the proposed policy changes are another indicator of what he has said before, that there is a lack of local control of schools.
"It's one more thing that we're not in control of, that folks in Annapolis are," Grambo said.
The board did not vote on the policy Monday.
Fallston scoreboard purchase
The board unanimously approved a $10,425 purchase of a new electronic scoreboard for the Fallston High School baseball field.
The purchase, which would be through the Daktronics Inc. scoreboard manufacturing firm, would be covered by the Cougars Club boosters.
The school board honored the players and coaches of the C. Milton Wright High School girls swim team and the Patterson Mill High School girls basketball team for their recent wins in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association championships in their respective sports.
They also recognized teams whose members earned Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference sportsmanship awards, including the North Harford High School boys basketball team, the Bel Air High School wrestling team, the Harford Technical High School boys basketball and boys and girls swim teams, plus the C. Milton Wright wrestling team.