Year-round education received a mixed reception from the Howard County school board last night as board members learned of how the proposal might work in the county's elementary and middle schools.
Board members asked dozens of questions on the specifics of the yearlong study, which concluded that Howard schools could successfully stretch the traditional 10-month calendar to 12 months.
No board members immediately endorsed the idea, and at least one strongly opposed the switch.
Board members have said spring would be the earliest they would make any decision, and the earliest that any switch could occur would be July 1997.
The board had planned to set a schedule for public hearings on year-round education during the meeting, but the schedule had not been announced by late last night.
The report was not intended to offer any opinion as to whether Howard schools ought to switch to year-round education. What the 90-member committee did was examine whether it could be done.
The state-funded report concluded that such a change was possible and would save the school system more than $15.5 million over the next 20 years.
Year-round education is being considered by the school system as a less expensive alternative to new school construction.
The 37,500-pupil system is expected to gain 10,500 students in the next 10 years, and school officials have proposed an extensive building plan to accommodate that enrollment growth. Six new elementary and three new middle schools are scheduled to open in the next four years.
But county officials have said repeatedly that they are not sure the county can afford to pay for all of those projects, forcing the board to consider alternatives.
In the past, board members have been reluctant to endorse year-round education, and the idea already has encountered substantial opposition from many parents.
The proposal presented to the board calls for an annual cycle of three 12-week periods of instruction separated by three vacations of three weeks each. Students still would attend school for 180 days a year.
Year-round education would reduce the need for new schools by dividing the student body at some elementary schools into groups, having one group take vacation while the rest are in school. All students under this "multiple-track" schedule would share a common three-week summer break and a one-week winter break.
Only certain elementary schools would adopt the multiple-track schedule, the report said, while the remaining elementary schools would switch to year-round calendars in which all students would be on the same track and take vacation at the same time.
The study proposed that middle schools also adopt year-round schedules in which all students are on the same track. The calendar for high schools would be unchanged.
During the meeting, board members questioned everything from assumptions about maintenance costs to how child care would function during the three-week vacations.
Board member Stephen Bounds was the most skeptical, repeatedly raising criticism of how year-round education had functioned elsewhere.
"If you had to do year-round schools, this [proposal] is better than anything I have seen," Mr. Bounds said. "But I still don't want to do it."
Other members praised elements of the proposal, particularly the remedial and enrichment instruction that could be offered to students during the three-week vacations, which also are known as intersessions.
Dr. Maurice Kalin, the associate superintendent who was in charge of the study, described the intersessions as being a substantial benefit to instruction.
"What we can do with year-round education is give students remedial assistance when they most need it," Dr. Kalin said.
Board member Sandra French agreed, saying, "I think this [intersession] would be vastly popular. This is a wonderful plan."
However, Chairwoman Susan Cook questioned whether the intersessions might be abused by parents who simply wanted to use them for cheap child care.
The report proposes charging $50 a week for the intersessions -- which would be far less than the standard cost of private child care.