Chapel Hill: Opinion

School boards need calendar flexibility

Because it is our district’s commitment to keep our families, staff and stakeholders informed of important school-related issues that impact our community, our board wanted to take this opportunity to address questions and concerns that you may have about recent winter weather, makeup days and school calendars.

Each year, the School Board adopts a school calendar that anticipates the need for inclement weather makeup days that may occur during the school year. While that approach has worked well in the past, adverse weather during the last two years has required us to use more than the number of makeup days built-into our calendars. As we have witnessed, Orange County, along with other counties across the state, has experienced unprecedented temperatures and winter weather that have forced us to go far beyond our number of built-in makeup days.

It is important to note that safety comes first when deciding whether to delay or cancel classes. Weather-related closings are never easy decisions to make, and we always put the safety of our children, parents, teen drivers and staff at the forefront of all such decisions. It is the Superintendent’s job to look holistically at our District and make the best decisions for everyone involved.

The roads in Orange County vary from interstate to narrow secondary roads, both paved andunpaved. The size and location of our county make it difficult for some to understand that while they are not experiencing icy or snowy roads in their neighborhoods, others who are located in other rural areasare seeing roadways that are not safe to travel. The Superintendent must consider the conditions of ALL roads when making decisions regarding safe travel during and following inclement weather. He alsoconsiders that inexperienced high school students are driving to school as well as parents transporting their children and buses driven by our professional, trained drivers. At the end of the day, our Board is comfortable that he falls on the side of caution when making decisions to delay, dismiss early or cancel school for the day.

Many of you are curious as to why school districts, including Orange County Schools, have resorted to Saturday makeup days. Yes, we understand that Saturday makeup days are inconvenient and interrupt family schedules. The decision to utilize Saturdays as makeup days is made after other built-in days have been exhausted and in an attempt to preserve spring break for students and families.

You may remember when school districts were able to set their own calendars based on what was best for their own communities. During those times, makeup days could be worked into teacher workdays or added to the end of the school year. Unfortunately, with the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, the General Assembly took that flexibility away from local districts and authorized a centralized statewide approach to setting school calendars. The new law greatly diminishes and compromises local school boards’ roles and authority in setting their own calendar. Here are examples of how the state tells us that we must administer our local school calendar:

▪ School year cannot start earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and must end no later than theFriday closest to June 11;

▪ Must have a minimum of 185 days OR 1,025 hours of instruction;

▪ Must have at least ten (10) teacher workdays;

▪ Have a minimum of ten (10) annual vacation leave days;

▪ Have the same or an equivalent number of legal holidays occurring within the school calendar as those designated by the State Personnel Commission for State employees;

▪ School shall not be held on Sunday or Veterans Day

Our board firmly believes that we do not live in a “one-size fits all” state – each community has its own unique requirements and needs, and local school districts should be able to set their own school calendar to meet the local uniqueness in the best ways. This encroachment by the General Assembly has greatly eroded school districts’ flexibility in deciding what is best for its own community. Some legislators recognize just how illogical the current calendar law is, and they have tried to help school districts across the state regain the much-needed flexibility by introducing amendments to the calendar law.

We are sorry to say that past amendment proposals have been unsuccessful and the inflexible calendar law remains intact and continues to limit communities on how to tackle make up days in ways that are best for their particular communities. Please know that our own local legislative delegation understands how the current law hamstrings us, and they are willing to introduce local legislation that would bring those types of decisions back to the local level instead of our district having to adhere to a one-size fits all school calendar.

On Feb. 9, the Orange County Board of Education approved, and submitted to members of the Orange County Legislative Delegation for consideration, a resolution requesting calendar flexibility. Numerous other school boards across the state are following this same path. Collectively, we pledge to work very hard to seek changes in the law, because unless or until the General Assembly changes the law or grants flexibility to local school districts, we are all bound to the current requirements and must rely upon options available within the prescribed start and end dates such as Saturday school, spring break and adding time to the school day as options for makeup days.

We invite you to join us in encouraging General Assembly members across the state to support giving school calendar control and flexibility back to local boards of Education. Write or call them to let them know how important the changes would be to your family and our community.

The letter was submitted by Stephen Halkiotis, chairman of the Orange County Board of Education; Tony McKnight, vice chairman; Tom Carr, Donna Coffey, Lawrence Sanders and Brenda Stephens.

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