Wake County school leaders are blaming the state’s school calendar law with forcing them to consider options for next school year that include a shorter winter break and holding classes on the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashanah.
North Carolina’s school calendar law is causing traditional-calendar schools to start later than normal and end earlier than usual in the 2016-17 school year. As a result, school systems have been considering calendar options that wouldn’t normally be on the table, such as having students attend fewer days of classes and/or longer school days.
The complaints grew so intense that Wake County school board members met privately with the board attorney on Aug. 18 to discuss what would happen if they chose not to follow the calendar law. But school board members say violating state law will no longer be under consideration when staff presents calendar options Tuesday.
“We’re not scofflaws,” said Wake school board chairwoman Christine Kushner in an interview last week. “But we wish we had more flexibility.”
The state’s calendar law was originally passed in 2004 with the support of the tourism industry and some parents amid complaints that school districts were shortening summer vacation by starting classes in early-to-mid August.
Under the law, traditional-calendar schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. For the 2016-17 school year, that means classes can’t start before Aug. 29 or end after June 9.
In trying to place 180 days of classes between Aug. 29 and June 9, Wake school administrators said they initially had only enough room for four teacher workdays during the school year instead of the typical seven.
Workdays are used by teachers for training and to do paperwork. They can also be used as weather makeup days. School leaders say four workdays isn’t enough considering all the demands teachers face.
“What we’re after is to try to provide planned, instructionally sound teacher workdays,” said school board vice chairman Tom Benton.
Following board concerns, staff will present a plan for traditional-calendar schools on Tuesday that will provide seven teacher workdays for the 2016-17 school year. But Tim Simmons, a Wake schools spokesman, said accomplishing that within the constraints of the calendar law resulted in some tough recommendations, including:
▪ A proposed day off for students on Rosh Hashanah was dropped;
▪ Winter break was shortened by one day from previous versions to eight weekdays;
▪ Three vacation days for school employees were moved from during the school year to after the last day of classes. Simmons said this change allowed the district to keep spring break as a full week.
The proposed calendar would leave only one workday after the last day of classes, which Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said won’t give teachers enough time to close out the year. He said teachers will have to come in on the weekend or on their own time.
But the proposed calendar does avoid options that school board members did not like.
Administrators said that they could add three workdays by shortening the school year to 177 days of classes. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg system has already taken this approach, scheduling 176 days of classes for next school year. But Wake school board members questioned how having fewer days to teach the material would help students.
As part of the potential reduction in school days, administrators had said the board might want to consider also lengthening the day to replace the lost time. Five extra minutes a day would add two days worth of instructional time, while 10 minutes extra a day would add three days worth.
“The 5 to 10 minutes a day is a way to meet the letter of the law,” said school board member Jim Martin, a N.C. State University science professor. “But I could guarantee you as a professor there is no instructional value of adding 5 minutes to a day.”
Another option being used around the state, administrators said, is to have shorter winter and/or spring breaks. For instance, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system cut winter break by three days next school year.
Some board members such as Bill Fletcher said Wake should adopt a calendar that best meets the needs of students and teachers, “and if that means pushing the start of school out into the week of Aug. 22nd, so be it.” But following the closed-session discussion, Fletcher said that’s not a battle he wants to fight with the state now.
Board members hope to approve the calendar by the end of September.
“We are about three months behind in adopting the calendar,” Kushner, the board chair, told her colleagues this month. “We do need to come to some definitive decision. I understand these are not clear-cut decisions as they have been in the past.”