The Year-Round Go-Round

Cy-Fairs experiment with year-round schools is being watched by other local districts. What they're seeing isn't pretty.

Few things challenge the sanity and decorum of well-adjusted suburbanites more than an issue that involves their children's education.

For the past three years, year-round schooling has been that issue in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, where the combatants are limbering up for yet another scrimmage in a battle that has pitted neighbor against neighbor and given birth to a brand of political activism never before seen in the comfortably affluent northwest Harris County community.

On one side are traditionalists, now backed by a majority of the district's board of trustees, who say scuttling the familiar September-to-June school year in favor of a year-round calendar was an extreme -- and unpopular -- remedy to the steady influx of students into Cy-Fair's 46 schools. They say year-round schooling, particularly the multitrack version with its four different calendars under one schoolhouse roof, creates havoc for parents who may have more than one child in school. The district may get up to 50 percent more capacity from its facilities, but many parents disliked having their children's vacations fall at different times.

But the pro-year-rounders argue that the district is growing at such a pace that the only other option is to spend millions on new school construction. And they point out that voters, in a January 1994 bond election, in effect chose spreading the education of the district's 51,000 students over 12 months rather than approving $106 million in construction bonds.

But this is not your typical dispute over the use of tax dollars. Certainly, the Cy-Fair district's rapid growth, its already lofty tax rate and the state's education funding vacuum have given rhetorical muscle to the pro-year-rounders' logic. But the anti-year-rounders, led by a housewife and mother of two whose father was a political strategist, have countered that a 12-month school year has turned their world on its ear. To them, the issue has become nothing less than a referendum on family values.

"How can you argue with the fact that you're basically putting the family unit back together?" says board of trustees president Ron Kennedy, a staunch foe of year-round education. "We don't need families divided, and year-round was doing that."

The lethal blend of tax money and emotion has stirred up an element that dwells, as another trustee put it, "on the low end of the feeding chain." Indeed, anonymous hate mail, accusations of influence peddling and even suggestions of physical violence have cast a shadow on what began as a legitimate debate on how to save money while maintaining educational standards. The turmoil likely has been noted by other area districts that, faced with growing enrollments and shrinking resources, are considering a 12-month school year.

"Everybody is watching Cy-Fair," says Bill O'Brien, a Cy-Fair trustee and year-round proponent. "Katy and Spring Branch and Klein -- all of them want to try it, and they're watching. But when Cy-Fair takes the beating that we have, it kinda sets everybody back.

"Year-round is growing throughout the country," O'Brien adds. "And I am convinced, along with most people, that eventually, it's going to get here."

Not if Charlotte Lampe has anything to say about it. Since 1992, when Cy-Fair began the pilot program that eventually led to districtwide implementation, she's had plenty to say about year-round education. Most of it's been bad, some of it's been downright nasty, and, according to some detractors, it's all been an outright lie.

But there's no question it's been effective. Lampe and the anti-year-round group she formed, Families Organized for Our Children's Unified School Year, or FOCUS, have forced a profound reversal in the Cy-Fair district's policy. Last month, the board of trustees voted to eliminate the year-round mandate at all but three elementary schools.

Moreover, in the coming weeks, students at Cy-Fair's other 43 schools will register for the next school year. In what both pro- and anti-year-round forces acknowledge is a referendum of sorts, students will choose either the traditional school calendar or one where periods of instruction are followed by intermissions throughout the year.

"It's no secret the administration wanted year-round, and it seemed as though we couldn't wrestle back a decision-making role," Lampe says. "Now they're acknowledging that we ought to at least have a choice."

To pro-year-rounders, the option to choose is insult atop injury. In the last two years, they have been severely wounded at the ballot box after relentless campaigns by FOCUS led to the election of three new anti-year-rounders to the seven-member board of trustees. Now that they are in the minority, the pro-year-rounders fear a poor showing in the upcoming registration could kill the issue in Cy-Fair once and for all.

"I think if we genuinely want that kind of calendar in this district, we've got to show this administration and this board that we're willing to go out there and sign up for it," says trustee Bill O'Brien. "If not, if only 10 to 15 percent of the people sign up for it, it'll be out of here."

O'Brien says "choice costs a lot of money," so he plans to "encourage" students and parents to opt for year-round schooling during registration. How he and other year-round supporters do that will be of intense interest to Lampe, whose group has repeatedly challenged the district's reasoning for implementing the year-round calendar.

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