Despite the fact that Howard County is near the bottom of Maryland school districts ranked by how much time students spend in the classroom, the Board of Education last night approved a school calendar for next year that reduces instructional time by two hours.
The decision is an effort to comply with teachers' requests for more planning and development time during the school year.
Teachers have complained that they are being asked to accomplish more on their own time every year and that necessary tasks, such as collaborative team and grade-level meetings and the grading of system-required assessments, are harder to fit into the work week.
But school officials also were dealing with the reality that in the past 10 years - to provide more time for staff development and conferences - students gradually lost 20 hours of classroom time.
Among state middle schools, Howard County ranks last in terms of average classroom time, with 1,141.5 hours. Worcester County has the most academic time for middle schools - 1,283.5 hours.
For high schools, Howard ranks second to last in classroom hours, above Baltimore County. In elementary schools, the county ranks 17th of 24 districts.
Still, board members voted to add two hours for staff development to the calendar, to provide elementary and middle school teachers with more time to write and update student support plans, and to give teachers an extra half-hour at the end of the third marking period.
School district spokeswoman Patti Caplan, whose communications office prepares the school calendar each year, said it is difficult to try to fit everything in.
"The bar has been raised for our students," she said. "There are far more demands on our students than there ever has been in the past, and we realize that that also puts additional pressure on our teachers."
But Caplan said school officials need to work harder to eliminate the yearly "arm-wrestling" over the calendar by trying to reduce the amount of time teachers spend on other tasks; for example, she said, scoring tests and entering grades could be made more efficient by upgrading technology.
The board also agreed to study the idea of shortening spring break, which generally falls around the religious holidays of Passover and Easter. If the study deems it necessary, the 2003-2004 school year could be longer.
Howard County now has six days for the break, as do Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Baltimore County has one day more, but most school districts in the state have two to four days.
"Because it would be a break from tradition, we want to make sure we're giving adequate notice," Caplan said.
Also at last night's board meeting, the president of the county's PTA Council, Mary Jo Neil, formally requested that Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and his top aides forgo raises for the next two years.
Neil said the PTA Council voted in agreement this week that "in these tight fiscal times, it is in the best interest of our public school system that executive salaries not be increased for two years."
School board member James P. O'Donnell said he thought it was "unfortunate" to single out the superintendent and his staff, saying the system should "appreciate all of the contributions of all of our hard-working employees."
O'Rourke's salary, at $190,800, is the second-highest among superintendents in the state. His top aides receive salaries ranging from $110,000 to $150,000. O'Rourke began his tenure almost two years ago with a salary of $180,000. He asked the school board last year for a raise of 8 percent, but received 6 percent.
"In perspective, Howard County struggles to compete with other school districts regarding teachers' salaries," Neil said. "Teachers with a bachelor's degree have a beginning salary of $32,913, ranked sixth in the state, and we have been struggling to sustain this position at best."
O'Rourke's proposed operating budget does not include pay raises for himself or his key executives, but he has said that it eventually could.