If the Bozeman School District wants to change the traditional times when schools start, stop and take vacation breaks, it has a lot of freedom to do so under Montana law, a task force learned this week.

The 40-member Calendar Task Force, which met for two hours on Monday, was created by the Bozeman School Board to investigate whether there’s a better way to arrange the school year.

And though this was only the group’s second meeting, the possibility of change is already provoking some resistance.

“I had lots of people say, ‘Don’t let them take away my summer,’” Martha Buenrostro, sophomore class president at Bozeman High School, told the group.

Buenrostro said students need a long summer break to get refreshed after a stressful school year, which often requires working late at night. Yet she acknowledged that, “Some people think over the summer, (students) get dumber.”

Gordon Grissom, principal at Sacajawea Middle School, said the current, summers-off calendar likely arose from the nation’s agricultural history. Today, he said, it works because it’s traditional and everybody is comfortable with it. As a teacher, Grissom said, he would use his summers off to earn additional degrees and to enjoy time with his boys.

Still, Grissom said, “I’m not confident it’s what’s best for students.”

Steve Johnson, assistant superintendent for business, said state law allows lots of latitude. It requires only that between July 1 and June 30, children must attend school 720 hours in kindergarten through third grade and 1,080 hours in fourth to 12th grades. Hours have replaced the former standard of 180 days. That is the maximum time for which the state will provide funding.

Since 1986, the Bozeman schools have been restricted more by the teachers’ union contract. Its guidelines call for starting school near Labor Day, taking off a Christmas break of eight to 10 days, and a spring break of three to five days, scheduled as closely as possible to Montana State University’s spring break.

One mother, Sarah Loen of the Whittier School parent committee, said the current school calendar, with its periodic half-days off, is difficult for working mothers who have to find child care.

Marilyn King, assistant superintendent for instruction, said the early-release days are scheduled every eight weeks to give teachers time to meet together and go over data on how each child is progressing. Two more early-release days were added this year, she said, though kids stay in school longer to keep the same number of minutes.

The task force is using the consensus process, which stresses active listening and respectful discussions. Now that the task force has discussed the current situation, it’s ready to start considering education research and possible alternatives. The next meeting is Dec. 19 in the Willson School boardroom at 5:30 p.m.

Some expressed impatience with the pace of the group’s progress, while Chuck Winn, assistant city manager, said he was “totally awed—I love the consensus process.”

One woman quipped, “Active listening – I’m going to take that skill and teach it to my husband.” The group laughed.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.