In what could be an initial step toward a longer school year in New York, the Board of Regents on Friday proposed allowing schools to open their classrooms to students in July and August.
However, it will be entirely up to local school districts to decide whether to extend classes into the summer.
The proposal, contained in a request for a record $723 million hike in state aid to schools next year, is designed to help give schools the flexibility to meet tougher high school graduation requirements in the years to come.
While the Regents also proposed spending more on library supplies and professional development for teachers to cope with the tougher standards, it is the possibility of summer classes that could have the most sweeping effect across New York.
Under the Regents plan, schools would be able to offer classes in July and August without being financially penalized. Under current rules, schools can't be reimbursed for holding regular classes in the summer.
The possibility of summer classes could lead to a staggered 180-day school year in which some students could see their school year begin in October and end in July, especially in
districts with overcrowded classrooms, such as New York City.
Summertime hours also could allow for students to be given more remedial help.
One school official suggested that students could take gym or other such courses in summer, giving them more time from September to June to concentrate on math, science or other subjects in which graduation requirements are being bolstered.
"It creates a set of possibilities for local school practitioners dealing with children who are going to need more time to succeed in the climate of higher standards," said Regents Chancellor Carl Hayden.
Hayden, who said he favors adding 20 days to New York's school year, suggested that optional summertime hours should be only an initial step.
"If the governor and Legislature are serious about real education reform, ultimately they're going to see that we have to expand the school year," he said. "But we're not at that point yet, so we're going to work with the parameters of what we can do without engaging them in that political fight."
The proposal to allow summer classes would need to be approved by the State Legislature. But even if it gets to that point, the concept of a more flexible school year faces some serious obstacles.
Teacher contracts could make such a plan unworkable, according to Buffalo school district spokesman Andrew Maddigan.
He noted that Buffalo's teacher contract, which does not expire until 1999, requires that the 180-day school year be held within 42 consecutive weeks that can begin no earlier than Labor Day. If it goes beyond 42 weeks, teachers are paid time-and-a-half.
Others said the plan could be too expensive to implement.
"Having the ability to move more into the summer in wholesale amounts is not such a great thing for us because buildings in Western New York are not air conditioned," said Orchard Park School Superintendent Charles Stoddart.
Assemblyman Steven Sanders, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, backed the summertime plan.
But he said legislation that he will introduce in January will require school districts to submit plans for dealing with problems like air conditioning and contracts with teachers and custodians.
"Also, there'd have to be a sensible plan about logistics so we don't have one school on one side of Buffalo with air conditioning and one on another side without air conditioning," he said. "We don't want to start busing kids all over the city in order to make the plan work."
Also, Sanders said, schools must show that the community supports summertime schooling. "These are educational issues, but they're also family issues," he said. "Families have gotten used to certain times of the year when they can be together. So changing that has to be done in a way the community supports."
The possibility of opening schools in July and August is just one solution that the Regents have proposed to meet the recently approved high school graduation requirements. Under that plan, those entering ninth grade in 2001 must pass five Regents exams -- math, science, English, U.S. history and global studies -- to get a New York high school diploma.
To fund the new mandate, the Regents asked Gov. Pataki and the Legislature to give public schools an additional $723 million in the 1998-99 school year.
The 6.7 percent boost would raise total state aid for schools to $11.65 billion.
The added funds will go for everything from hiring new teachers to buying additional supplies.
However, the proposal, which would give more aid to poorer, mostly urban districts at the expense of suburban schools, is expected to encounter political opposition.
The plan would pump more money into "high needs" districts, which include Buffalo, Lackawanna, Niagara Falls, Jamestown and Dunkirk. Such districts have relatively poorer students, lower test scores and less experienced teachers than other schools.
More than 60 percent of the funding hike would go to 45 such districts, which educate 1.36 million students. They would be eligible for aid increases raning from 2.7 to 10.3 percent.
"This is what it takes to raise performance," said state Education Commissioner Richard Mills.
Stoddart, whose Orchard Park district would get a lower funding share under the plan, backed the concept of giving more to poorer districts. "Schools in the greatest academic need are going to have a more difficult time getting to the Regents levels" than others, he said.
The Regents proposal comes at an opportune time -- just before an election year and a week after Pataki announced the state is likely to finish the fiscal year with a surplus of more than $1 billion.
Aides to Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said they would consider the Regents' funding request. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, could not be reached to comment, but Sanders, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said the funding request "is in the ballpark."
While much is made every year of the state's school aid formula that tends to favor richer school districts, backers say the Regents approach of giving more money to poorer schools is needed if the tougher graduation requirements are to be met.
"This recognizes there is a relationship between high needs and performance," said Robert Bennett, a member of the Board of Regents from Buffalo.
In their funding request, the Regents left out a major area: school construction. Voters in November rejected a $2.4 billion bond act to repair crumbling schools across New York. The Regents estimate that more than $5 billion is needed to bring the schools into shape.
But the Regents request does not include construction funding because Hayden said "we didn't want to skew the numbers."
But Hayden and others warned that achieving tougher graduation standards will be undermined if the state doesn't begin to fix the aging schools.
"Inadequate, overcrowded, dangerous school buildings are an urgent issue," Hayden said.
Hayden and others are banking on inclusion of separate money for school construction in next year's budget or going back to voters with another bond act.