The Year-Round Go-Round

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.

The mistrust on both sides, simmering since district administrators appointed the first committee to study the issue in 1987, reached a boil with the January 1994 bond election. By that time, a pilot program set up at two elementary schools had been running for about 18 months. The district argued that surveys showed the test program was popular with parents and students. Opponents countered that, since those at the two schools who objected to year-round could relocate to another school, the only people surveyed were those predisposed to like it.

Both sides agreed to put the issue to a districtwide vote. The ballot choices: issue $106.3 million in schoolhouse bonds and maintain the traditional calendar, or issue $61.7 million in bonds for one new high school, but adopt the year-round schedule throughout the district.

A record number of voters -- almost 23,000 -- turned out. Year-round education won by less than 1 percent, passing by a mere 638 votes. Hardly a mandate, Lampe argues, particularly when less than 40 percent of district voters have school-age children. Nonetheless, that September, some 38,000 elementary and junior high school students went on a "multitrack" year-round calendar; high schools remained on the September-to-June schedule.

Meanwhile, Lampe and FOCUS cranked their operation up to a new level of sophistication. And things began to get truly ugly. Once a vocal group of rabble-rousing pamphlet pushers, FOCUS began inspecting the campaign contribution reports of trustees and filing open records requests. One such request sought the names of parent and teacher volunteers who helped develop the year-round program. That led one set of parents to sue, requesting a temporary restraining order and claiming fear of "imminent bodily harm" if overzealous anti-year-rounders found out who they were. Ironically, Lampe says, the husband called her not long ago and "told me I didn't deserve to live."

Lampe ended up with the names she wanted, though she got much more mileage from information she dug up while checking out the Cypress-Fairbanks Citizens' Initiative, a pro-year-round political action committee with ties to two Cy-Fair trustees.

Lampe learned that the largest contributor to the Citizens' Initiative was an architect whose firm received a contract to design a new high school for the district a week after the bond election. In fact, she found that the majority of contributors to the pro-year-round group were businesses and individuals, most from outside the district, who had contracts with the Cy-Fair ISD, including the district's legal counsel, Bracewell & Patterson.

But the anti-year-round forces believe they assumed the moral high ground when they discovered a letter written on Citizens' Initiative stationery and signed by Cy-Fair trustees John Mahoney and Donna Ellis. The nine-paragraph missive was mailed to about 6,000 of the district's senior citizens three weeks before the January 1994 bond election. It warned that unless elderly voters turned out in support of the year-round measure, "the school board may have no other option but to eliminate your homestead exemption in order to pay for new schools."

Further down in their letter, Mahoney and Ellis acknowledged that state law freezes homestead exemptions at age 65. But by then, for any thinking senior, the implication was crystal clear: a vote for the traditional school year was a vote to kill your homestead exemption.

"That's where the problem began, that's what got everybody torqued off," says board president Ron Kennedy. "You had a lot of older people who wouldn't normally have voted on an issue like that, and the issue only passed by less than 1 percent. I'm not saying that people who don't have kids in school shouldn't vote. It's their taxes, too. But to just go out there and openly write a letter that ambiguously states certain facts was reprehensible."

Considering the nature of the conflict, it's hardly a shocker that Mahoney, a law partner of former Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz, defends his letter by accusing Lampe and other anti-year-rounders of their own underhanded acts. He said the letter to senior voters was only an effort to alert them that "the homestead exemption would be on the table, just generally" if the traditional school year prevailed.

"I'll put my letter up against her literature any day of the week," declares Mahoney, who chose not to run for a third term as trustee and was replaced by an anti-year-round candidate last May. "If [FOCUS] ever told the truth about anything, it would be amazing."  

Mahoney accuses Lampe and FOCUS of "sabotaging" the year-round program by spreading misinformation, such as scaring parents with "lies" about how year-round schooling causes an increase in gang activity. He also argues that FOCUS manipulated enrollment and school capacity numbers in an attempt to dispute the district's claim that it would need three new elementary schools.

Lampe maintains that her figures are accurate and that Cy-Fair administrators "created a need on paper" to justify year-round schooling. That's a view held by many anti-year-rounders, including Kennedy, the board president. A five-term trustee, Kennedy says Cy-Fair doesn't fit the profile of the successful year-round schooling program, which he says is best suited to districts that are heavily bilingual, where students benefit from less time away from the classroom. Cy-Fair schools are overwhelmingly white.

"But we had a board of trustees at the time who were adamant that we were going to have year-round," Kennedy says. "They were gung ho to be trendsetters, and their philosophy was that if parents didn't like it, they were going to have to move.

"But what's happened in the last two years is we've had the largest turnouts ever in school board elections and those incumbents were removed from office."

The first thing the new anti-year-round board did was appoint a 31-member committee to study ways to combat overcrowding. Toward that end, the committee solicited suggestions from the Cy-Fair administration. Lampe and Kennedy were amazed to discover that, contrary to what administrators had maintained for years, by changing the boundaries for about 5 percent of the district's schools, they could put off building even one new school until the year 2000.

"The bottom line is," says Kennedy, "it turns out we didn't need any new schools. So their whole argument goes out the window."

Last month's decision by Cy-Fair trustees to lift the year-round mandate at all but three elementary schools gives parents at those three the option of relocating their children to a school with a traditional calendar. Students at the other schools will make their choices during the upcoming registration, and by the end of next month, the jury should be in on year-round education in Cy-Fair.

But it's unlikely that the bitterness of the last three years will dissipate anytime soon. Schools trustee Bill O'Brien says the issue has "permanently damaged" a few of his friendships. Some fear that, depending on the outcome of future school board elections, the district could end up switching back and forth between year-round and traditional.

Former trustee John Mahoney thinks the strife in the district may be just beginning. He worries that FOCUS members will attempt to set the agenda for the entire district, using school board and bond elections to get their way. He's already irate that Lampe is criticizing the district for the cost of its new administration building.

"I predict that if they get the upper hand," Mahoney says, "you will never get rid of them."

That would suit Charlotte Lampe just fine. She's found she has a talent for the blood sport that is school-board politics.

"This is really cutthroat and intense and volatile, because when you're dealing with people's families and people's kids, it gets nuts," she says. "But I can't imagine not being involved in it.

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