After a heated discussion that lasted more than an hour, the Howard County Board of Education put off a decision last night on whether to extend the school day, a move necessary to meet state instruction requirements.
An analysis by The Sun in December showed that Howard County routinely falls short of the 1,170 instructional hours required at the high school level -- this year by 42 hours. Staff and board members have been scrambling ever since to find the best way to comply with the law while creating the least educational disruption.
One suggestion was adding 15 minutes to the school day at all levels and another was adding 10 minutes at just the high school and middle school levels. But every plan has drawbacks, some costing as much as $430,000 to implement or causing an overhaul of exam schedules.
Last night, the board directed Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, at his suggestion, to study the situation and offer recommendations at the next meeting, set for Feb. 26.
"We have to throw it back to you again," board member James P. O'Donnell told top system officials. "You've got the problem."
Meanwhile, the board voted on making up time lost to weather-related closings, electing to hold classes March 26 -- previously scheduled for staff development and a day off for students.
Howard schools have closed seven days since the year's opening in late August because of Tropical Storm Isabel and wintry conditions but budgeted only five inclement-weather days on the calendar. The state granted a waiver for one of those days, and the other was accounted for last night.
But the board has to resolve the loss of two staff development days, including March 26.
"I'm totally opposed to getting rid of a staff development day a second year in a row," said board member Sandra H. French. Teachers also lost a day last year.
O'Rourke offered to find a solution, which he will present to the board later.
Earlier in the day, the board met with dozens of top-level State Department of Education members to update them on the search for a new superintendent and seek feedback.
"The idea is, we want everyone to be involved in this process; we want everyone to know what's going on," O'Donnell said. O'Rourke's contract, which expires June 30, has not been renewed.
Thus far, board members have one criterion for a new superintendent, said Courtney Watson, the chairman: that the person "be committed to the comprehensive plan for accelerated school improvement."
Many have expressed a fear that its ambitious goals -- bringing school test scores up to state standards by 2005 and eliminating racial and economic achievement gaps by 2007 -- will be lost with the departure of O'Rourke, who developed them.
"We're very much behind the comprehensive plan," Watson said.
But educators were not sure of what lay ahead and were reeling from the board's decision not to renew O'Rourke's contract.
"I was in crisis," said Zeleana Morris, a secondary-education English resource teacher. Morris said she was disappointed that staff received no warning and had to learn of the decision in the newspaper.
Bids from consulting firms for the job of gathering feedback from school system employees and the community and screening candidates were due at 2 p.m. yesterday. The board will choose a company for the search tasks by March 1 and officially begin the hunt for a new superintendent.
The board will soon add a link to the school system Web site, www.hcpss.org, with updates on the search, said member Joshua M. Kaufman.