When the dust settled after Tuesday's rancorous Palo Alto Board of Education meeting, at which a scheduled vote on academic calendars for 2011-2013 was postponed, two things seemed evident:
A clear majority on the board supports the notion of holding first-semester finals before winter break as a strategy for easing teen stress by giving students a two-week, assignment-free break from school.
But a majority will not support other calendar changes necessary to achieve pre-break finals and still have two roughly even-length semesters -- a school year that begins in mid-August and ends before June 1, with a winter break that spills into the first week of January.
Those accompanying changes cause problems for too many families, board members said, encroaching on traditional August vacations and forcing working parents to scramble for scarce child care in the first week of January and early June.
A Nov. 9 board vote on the calendar was postponed after dozens of parents and students showed up to voice opposition to the proposal, which had the 2011-12 school year convening Thursday, Aug. 18, and ending May 31.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would return to the board Dec. 7 with a new recommendation after consulting with the district's teacher-dominated Calendar Committee to ascertain whether teachers could work with semesters of up to 20 days' difference in length.
Whatever the outcome, next year's school start date is likely to be Monday, Aug. 22, or Tuesday, Aug. 23, similar to the recent past, board and staff members said.
Several students and their parents Tuesday argued that first-semester finals in December would exacerbate, not reduce, their stress levels. They said there have been no empirical studies to support the argument that pre-break finals ease stress, and criticized as unscientific informal polls indicating a wide margin of Gunn and Palo Alto high school students favor December finals.
But board members appear not to buy that argument.
If teachers can live with uneven semesters, a board majority appeared ready to join a Bay Area trend toward pre-winter break finals. In the immediate area, nearly all high schools have made the shift, including Menlo-Atherton, Los Altos, Mountain View, Woodside, St. Francis, Castilleja and Menlo.
Parents and administrators at M-A, Los Altos, Mountain View, Castilleja and St. Francis have said students and teachers are so happy with the shift they would never go back.
Attention shifted to the high-performing Fremont Union High School District, which has achieved both pre-break finals and a late-August start date by sacrificing semester parity.
This year's first semester in that district, which includes the top-performing Monta Vista High School, is 80 days long and second semester is 100 days long.
Palo Alto board President Barbara Klausner, who previously appeared cool toward pre-break finals, said her opinion changed after conversations with board members, parents and administrators in Fremont Union.
"I called them because I had issues with whether pre-break finals are actually important," Klausner said.
"I wanted to know if students' grades had suffered by not having enough time to study for finals, or if there'd been a problem with college applications. I didn't hear it; it wasn't a problem.
"There really was not an underlying current of complaint, and that carries weight with me," Klausner said.
But Palo Alto should not move to uneven semesters if it means teachers will be forced to cram excessive material into a shorter first semester, Klausner said.
Board member Camille Townsend, who has been the most vocal in questioning the merits of pre-break finals, said teachers in Palo Alto as well as in the Fremont Union High School District should be consulted on a future course.
"We can't compromise instructional integrity," Townsend said Thursday.
"There needs to be a conversation with teachers particularly. If unequal semesters undermine instruction, that's problematic. And I don't want people pointing fingers at the teachers and saying, 'They're the bad guys here.'
"I still have some deep reservations about pre-break finals," Townsend said.