The use of “health appointment” excuses for tardiness by Cazenovia high school students dropped 43 percent during the fall 2012 semester, verifying the district’s fears that the “health late” excuse, as it is called, was being used to circumvent the code of conduct in order for students to be able to participate in extracurricular activities and not for “legal” tardiness.
This was the message conveyed to the Cazenovia Board of Education at its Feb. 25 meeting in response to parental objection and ire that the new policy, which began in September, was unfair to students and even unnecessary as a rule.
“The data really speaks for itself,” Cazenovia High School Principal Eric Schnabl told the board.
The district’s code of conduct states that the only acceptable reason for being late to school is a scheduled health appointment, required court appearance, college visit or extreme emergencies. If a student is late or misses school for a doctor’s appointment, he or she must provide a doctor’s note upon returning to school. Students who do not provide a doctor’s note are ineligible to participate in any extracurricular activities that day.
The high school administration enacted the new policy after reviewing years of data, discussions with stakeholder groups (teachers, parents and students) and approval by the school board in 2012. The reason for the change was the steady increase in the use of “health late” excuses as a loophole by students who had missed a part of the school day for an illegal reason but still wanted to participate in extracurricular activities. The new requirement of a doctor’s note closed that loophole, Schnabl said.
District parents, unhappy with the revised policy, began in October 2012 requesting a revocation of the change; and in January 2013 a group of parents presented a petition to the district expressing that sentiment, said District Superintendent Bob Dubik. The school board addressed the issue at its regular January meeting and continued the discussing at its Feb. 25 meeting.
Schnabl reviewed the entire issue for the board and said one parental concern — that of a student’s right to privacy concerning medical information — is not being violated. He said that under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects the privacy of individually identifiable health information, it is acceptable for the district to require a physician’s note as long as the substance of the appointment is not divulged, and as long as it is a “blanket policy” that covers everyone.
Since the amended policy took effect in September, the number of “health lates” at the high school dropped from 831 to 360, including, as a specific example, one student who went from 18 “health lates” to one, “and I don’t see any difference in his health,” Schnabl said.
“That’s 471 less class interruptions,” he said, defending the policy. “That could be 471 hours of instruction we gained by this.”
Schnabl said the current extracurricular policy has been in place “for decades,” and only the requirement of a doctor’s note is new. He also said many other school districts around the state have the same policy. “If we don’t ask for a doctor’s note, we’ll be back to 831 health lates,” he told the board.
Many parents have objected to the policy, stating that it’s too harsh for the simple problem of a student being merely a few minutes late to school in the morning and then, because of that, he or she misses an entire day of a sport or other after-school activity.
Parent Sarah Webster, who spoke during the board’s public comment period, complained that her son was three minutes late to school one day and therefore missed a practice and the high school administration is not offering any leeway or “gray areas” for explanations for tardiness.
In response to this and similar comments from the board, Schnabl said the policy is that students must be in their homeroom by 7:58 a.m., and three minutes late is still three minutes late. He said that if the school changed the homeroom time to 8:01 a.m. then some students still would come in at 8:04 a.m.
Dubik asked what the core problem was on this issue: is it student tardiness or the student and parent unhappiness at the tardy student not being allowed to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities?
“This goes to my comment last month: are we an educational institution or an athletic institution?” Schnabl said.
Because of the number of parental concerns and complaints, the board tasked Schnabl to review the attendance policy, discuss it again with the different stakeholder groups in the district and report back to the board in May with any revised policy recommendations.
“Certainly the numbers reflect a positive change in student attendance and tardiness, but we’re always open to look at new ways to address issues,” Dubik said after the meeting.
Also at the meeting:
—Dubik, reporting for assistant superintendent for finance William Furling who was absent, said the school district’s possible budget deficit for the 2013-14 year is not as large as previously projected. Initial budget figures showed a gap of $650,000 that the district would need to somehow fill, and administrators have been considering alternatives to make up the amount. Recently tabulated savings in utilities costs, as well as three recently-announced staff retirements have lessened the budget gap to $460,000, Dubik said. The district also is waiting to hear more information about state school funding decisions, as well as the impact of an upcoming district bond refinancing, to get a better idea of further budget implications, he said. The board of education held a public budget forum on Monday, March 4, at which these issues were discussed. The meeting occurred after press time, but full coverage will be posted on the Cazenovia Republican website and in next week’s issue.
—Dubik told the board the impact of the new school lunch menu mandates from the federal government, which made new requirements on what schools may or may not serve students for lunch, is that the Cazenovia School District currently has fallen from a surplus of funds to about a $25,000 deficit in its lunch program since September. This impact is due to the higher cost of food the district is federally required to provide and a large decrease in the number of students buying lunch, because the new menu is not popular, Dubik said.
“So from a small surplus we’re now $20,000 to $30,000 in the hole — that could be a $50,000 swing,” said Pat Vogl, head of the board’s finance committee.
“We have never lost money on our lunch program before this,” Dubik said. He said that the district could consider going to a private provider for its lunch program, but that could push the price of lunches for students up to four or five dollars per meal.
—The board approved a new high school class to begin next year called “How things are made.” The class will teach students how to safely operate various hand and power tools to produce projects in different mediums such as wood, plastics and metals.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.
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