COLUMBIA — At the start of school last year, Columbia parent Carlynn Trout became alarmed with the temperature of her daughter’s classrooms.
“Last August was terrible,” Trout said. “The building was so hot that I really question how much was accomplished at school. I don’t know how anyone can teach in West Junior High when it is that hot, much less be a student there.”
This year, the Columbia Public School District dismissed classes early four times in August and once in September due to the heat. Assistant Superintendant Lynn Barnett said several things go into deciding whether school should be dismissed, including the temperature, heat index, forecast, day of the week and evening temperatures. Administrators also speak to meteorologists and the health department to see if there are any warnings.
Trout has an additional idea. Along with a handful of other parents, she has launched an effort to have the school year start after Labor Day. Their goals: to relieve students from the heat and to save energy.
Trout e-mailed a letter to the Columbia School Board voicing concerns about the heat, the amount of energy used and the cost of keeping buildings cool in August. The letter proposes to start classes the day after Labor Day, to hold first-semester finals at the end of January and to end school in early June.
The calender is set for the coming year, with the first day of school on Aug. 19. But Trout has her eyes on the future. “Let’s please not start in mid-August,” Trout said. “We have such a good chance to set a smart and environmentally responsible example for our kids and for Missouri.”
Barnett said the school district calendar goes through a long process before it is approved by the school board. The calendar must include 174 days for elementary schools, 176 days for secondary schools and 1,044 hours. Parent-teacher conferences and collaboration days must also be taken into consideration. Barnett said she develops a draft of the calendar in December, and then the community is encouraged to give its input in January. A calendar committee also looks at the draft, and then it is shown to the school board for approval.
School Board member Tom Rose said he supports considering starting the school year later. “I dislike having to cancel school for heat days,” Rose said.
However, he did mention a problem with the scheduling of high school final exams. “We would have to take a whole new mind-set of our semesters, especially with the situation where high schools (will) have not given final exams before Christmas break,” Rose said.
Barnett agreed that the major problem with the new calendar would be changing the semester schedule.
“I think the big challenge is our students and teachers really like having the semester end before the holidays,” Barnett said.
Nick Boren, the district’s chief operations officer, said starting school a week later would not be saving the district energy or money. He said the only way to save money would be to completely shut down the schools, which is not possible.
“We average $180,000 a month for energy at the first and last of school. So if we could shut the schools completely down we would save $360,000,” Boren said. “This is not possible since the school will still be occupied for general and preventive maintenance, waxing and cleaning of the floors, and the completion of projects that require school to be out of session.”
Boren said the main reason the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system cannot be completely turned off is to maintain air quality and prevent mold, which means the HVAC system must run a minimum of four hours, even during holidays and breaks.
“I commend the suggestions but have to say that the proposal is not realistic,” Boren said.
He said the best way to reduce cost in the district is to use energy efficiently by turning off lights when they are not needed, not using incandescent bulbs, not using screen savers and turning computers off completely at night.
Trout said she hopes the school district will take her concerns about the environment, the economy and the education of students who attend the non-air conditioned schools in Columbia into consideration.
“If the board and administration have problems deciding which way to go,” Trout said, “they should just think of our planet.”