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News Education Macon County School start date left up to the State Board of Education

The Board of Education unanimously approved the 2012/2013 school calendar during Monday night’s regularly schedule.

The calendar, which is now being sent to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and State Board of Education for approval, has designated August 9 as the first student day for next school year, with the first teacher workday falling on August 2 and the last day of school for students will fall on May 24.

For the new calendar to be approved, DPI must first approve a weather waiver which will allow Macon County to implement the non-traditional calendar. In the last few months, the data being used by the school system and at DPI for the weather wavier has been heavily scrutinized and the validity has been debated.

The Macon County school system has received scrutiny over the last few months surrounding the data being used by the district. The board’s approval of the calendar is based on an interpretation of the school calendar law that varies from DPI’s version, but is supported by school board attorney, John Henning Jr.

History of changing data

In February, Macon County’s Board of Education tabled discussion regarding the 2012/2013 school calendar and a weather waiver request due to concern about the accuracy of the data. At the request of the board, Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman worked with Julia Waldroop, school system data manager to reevaluated the data and made corrections to ensure that each day being reported as a snow day could be verified and accounted for.

The accuracy of the school district’s data for the past 10 years originally came in to question last year after a new law went into effect changing the way the days missed due to weather problems were reported to the state.

According to Andrew Cox, who handles calendar requests at DPI, a recent law, which was retroactively applied to the past 10 years for districts across the state, allowed delays and half days to be counted toward days missed during a school year.

Initially, the law stated that in order to be eligible for the weather waiver, a school district had to miss eight calendar days in any four of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failure or emergency situations.

Under that law, Macon County schools reported missing 13 days during the 2010-2011 academic year, but before that, the most school days missed in a year was five (2008-2009), which is why the county has not previously qualified for the waiver.

In June of 2010, the General Assembly a new bill was approved which stated “Schools in any local school administrative unit in county have been closed for all or part of eight days per year during any four of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions. For purposes of this subdivision, a school shall be deemed to be closed for part of a day if it is closed for two or more hours.”

According to Dr. Brigman, he noticed a discrepancy in the school district’s records and the numbers reported in DPI’s website. Brigman notified Cox of DPI’s error and informed him and the members of the Board of Education that he had begun working with Julia Walrdroop to recalculate the data, which revealed in some instances (2010-2011), the district could report up to 18 days in a single calendar year.

During February’s board meeting, board member Jim Breedlove raised questions about the monumental increase in numbers and stated that even if the law was allowed to be implemented retroactively, it seemed nearly impossible to show such radically different numbers. “I just find it hard to believe that we are able to report such a drastic difference,” said Breedlove in February. “I cannot, in good conscience, vote for something that I have not been able to personally verify. We have a liability here and I would feel more comfortable voting for it after seeing how these numbers were drafted up.”

According to Cox, it is the responsibility of the school district to compile the data needed for the weather waiver, and DPI does not take any action to verify any information they receive from districts within the state. Cox also reported that the only figures DPI has on record are the final numbers for each year, and information regarding the individual days missed would be kept at the respective school district’s office.

When Dr. Brigman and Waldroop revisited the numbers, they found additional discrepancies between the numbers reflected on the county level and the numbers being reported by DPI. As the school system’s data manager, Waldroop recorded snow days on her desk calendars throughout the year. She was able to go back as far as 2006/2007 and check data against her desk calendar in order to better verify the days being reported to DPI.

According to Waldroop, the confusion with the data can be attributed to two major factors. The first being that until the 2008/2009 school year, Macon County Schools operated on four different calendars instead of a districtwide schedule. Because of the different schedules at different school sites, individual principals were charged with making weather waiver cancellations at their respective schools. Because it was not required to be a districtwide decision, the central office did not keep records for each school site, explained Waldroop.

The second contributing factor to the confusion is that until 2004, there were very few school calendar laws requiring districts to keep records of school cancellations, and until 2010, delays and early dismissals were not counted so there was no need to record it. Macon County can use Waldroop’s desk calendars to verify the years she worked as data manager, but any additional data is not available because it simply doesn’t exist.

Community opposition

Sabrina Hawkins, who has three students in school at Highlands school, has actively opposed the district’s weather request because she says the data is not accurate. “The dates they report (for the “two hour/eight or more days/for four of the past 10 years rule) are not accurate,” said Hawkins. “They have given me reports that I have received and some do not meet the requirement nor match up.”

During March’s meeting of the Board of Education, School board attorney John Henning Jr., assured the board that although on DPI's weather waiver request form it states “ALL” schools in the district must meet the requirements of having missed eight or more days in four of the last 10 years, the requirement of “ALL” is not in line with the North Carolina General Statue.

Henning informed the board that DPI did not have the right to interpret the law. “[North Carolina law] doesn’t say all schools,” said Henning. “It doesn't say every school. The General Assembly is perfectly capable of coming up with that language, and it does not.”

According to Rob Hines. Director of LEA projects at DPI, Henning is incorrect and data for “ALL” schools must be reported in order to qualify for a weather waiver. “With respect to the detailed data, NCDPI does not require school districts to provide specific dates their schools were closed/delayed due to weather, only the total number of days,” wrote Hines in an email. “We explicitly instruct the LEAs to provide closings of two or more hours for ALL schools. We also ask the LEAs to provide the number of days each individual school was closed (in addition to all schools), but eligibility for a “good cause” waiver is based on ALL schools being closed for two or more hours, eight days, during any four of the last ten years. So for the case where a district has 11 schools and one meets the criteria for a waiver, the waiver would NOT be granted since the entire district does not meet the criteria. Of course, closing decisions are district-level decisions and most close the entire district in the event of inclement weather anyway. If you are interested in knowing the specific dates the district was closed, you will need to contact the district directly.”

Henning was adamant that there was sufficient evidence to support applying for the weather waiver and also stated that he has been in contact with the Attorney General’s office to dispute the use of the word “ALL” on DPI’s form. During the meeting, Henning also informed the board that although he believes the board can apply for the waiver, it may be subject to legal challenge. “Is it subject to challenge? Absolutely, almost anything is,” said Henning. “Don’t base your decision on the threat of a challenge. Make a decision based on what you know in your heart is the best option for your students.”

Board member Stephanie McCall, who made the motion to approve the calendar with a few revisions, said one of the main reasons she felt comfortable with approving the calendar was to ensure that teachers were able to receive the full months pay.

As board member Gary Shields pointed out, new salary laws (Session Law 2011-379, General Statute 115C-302.1.) require that teachers can only be paid for days worked, instead of being paid in advance. Teachers who are paid on installments throughout the summer when school is not in session, would receive their last check in June, and then not be paid again until the first payment cycle of the new year in mid September. The calendar approved by the school board last week, will allow teachers to receive a check in August.

“I certainly understand the concern teachers have about the pay issue, which seemed to be the driving force behind this year need for early August school,” said Hawkins. “I support the teachers in their quest to change the law back to allow local districts to “pre-pay” teachers as they have in the past. I am contacting Senator Jim Davis to request he support such a change and I urge the Macon School Board to pass a resolution at their next meeting urging the General Assembly to not penalize our teachers.”

Hawkins believes that Macon County’s calendar should line up with the calendar at Southwestern Community College in order to accommodate Macon Early College students. “I still don’t understand the failure to at least sync the calendar with Southwestern’s calendar,” said Hawkins. “I have repeatedly asked this question, yet not one has given me an answer or even acknowledged that I have asked. When the Aug 25 law mandate was put into effect, the uproar was that the southwestern calendar was not syncing up with MEC and we needed to get exams in before Christmas. Once they got the educational waiver for this present school year and could change the start dates, they took the calendar the extreme opposite way and the sync up with SCC was even worse.”

Hawkins also opposed the numbers being reported to DPI from the central office because the data that was approved last Monday night reflected the fifth set of numbers associated with the calendar waiver. “I am told that as late as Monday, they had altered these dates for a fifth time. If that does not send up a red flag that we have no idea what the real numbers are, I am not sure what does,” she said. “With the exception of one board member, this alarming number of alterations did not seem to concern the other four members, nor did the fact that handwritten notes by an employee on a paper desk calendar was all we could offer up for substantial proof of these snow dates. I just find it hard to believe that a school district such as MCS cannot provide solid, correct and documented data to support their arithmetic.”

Chances of a second legal challenge of the school calendar

Hawkins has been in close contact with DPI and hopes that just because Macon County’s board approved the weather request and the calendar, that the State Board of Education will deny the request based on insufficient data. If the State Board does approve Macon County’s request, Hawkins intends to challenge it on the state level. “The Board approving to apply for this waiver does not mean the state board will grant them. I will wait first to see what action will be taken by the State Board. If the State Board does not maintain the same posture toward the need for solid data and compliance with the law, as reiterated both on the waiver application and the DPI email on the topic...then we will consider all options,” said Hawkins. “But I remain confident that a body who is more concerned with the law than a fall break will rule accordingly. I am also confident that the pay issue will be positively resolved by then.”

In the event of a legal challenge to the weather request, it would mark the second time Macon County has been subject to legal repercussions for attempting to implement the nontraditional weather waiver.

In June 2011, Save Our Summers – N.C. (SOS-NC) filed a petition with the State Office of Administrative Hearings challenging the legality of an alternative calendar for Macon County Schools, which designated the start date for the 2011-2012 school year on Aug. 4, three weeks earlier than the previous year.

SOS-NC is a volunteer coalition of parents, grandparents, education professionals and others who seek to establish, protect and maintain a more traditional school calendar as a choice for elementary and secondary schools throughout the state.

The objective of the group, according to its website, “is to preserve the summer months for outside-the-classroom childhood and family learning experiences and for valuable ‘reallife’ opportunities.”

SOS-NC filed a preliminary injunction to petition to the state to reconsider granting the non-traditional calendar waiver. On July 26, State Administrative Law Judge Joe L. Webster denied that request, and all schools in Macon County were allowed to open their doors to students on Aug. 4.

In November of 2011, SOS-NC withdrew the position and decided to not take further action. According to the press release in November, SOS-NC had to withdraw the petitions because they were unable to justify the large legal expenses of a single-district trial since August 25th had already passed. Therefore, with no decision having been made yet on the merits of the case, they decided it would be a better use of resources to withdraw the Macon County-specific case and focus their efforts on all potential threats to the School Calendar law in the upcoming months.

Hawkins, who had teamed up with SOS-NC last year, stated that last year’s petition brought several crucial details to light, which should be considered this year. “While we lost the injunction hearing last year, several issues with the application were discovered at the hearing once school had started it didn’t make sense to continue the fight,” said Hawkins. “From my reading of last year’s intersession waiver application, we presented to the State Board that we would be holding two full weeks of full days of remedial instruction. We only had three half days each session with Highlands not having anything offered at all in the Spring intersession. We had less than 8 percent of Macon County students take advantage of the Spring intersession. I think it’s clear to any objective observer that we could have delivered those same services without the radical changes to the calendar.”

According to Louise Lee of SOS-NC, the organization is once again looking to the state and awaiting its decision before seeking legal action. “Save Our Summers – NC is simply seeking the truth, and the citizens of Macon County deserve to know it,” said Lee. “For months, we have been extremely patient with Macon County and with DPI, as repeated requests for raw data and for factual proof of various claims have been met with either silence, or with vague explanations that left us with even more questions. When there is cause to question whether or not a law is being twisted or broken, SOS-NC will not give up in our pursuit to uncover any wrongdoing.”

Hawkins hopes that regardless of the outcome of the weather waiver and calendar, in the future the community and parents will be allowed to have more involvement in the calendar process. “I would hope that the Superintendent, the Central Office, and the Board will invite greater community/parent input on such vital matters before the issues are finalized to the stage that our suggestions are pointless,” said Hawkins. “Our schools are public schools – we hear that schools want more parent involvement but that has to go beyond being merely helpers for fundraising events. Dr. Brigman’s parent advisory council needs to be open to all interested parents. I would hope that MCS would finally embrace the current law the way it is written or wait until they legally qualify before applying for waivers. At such a time this happens or our State law mandating the August 25 school start date is changed or overturned, I will no longer take issue with our school system over the school calendar.”





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