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News Education School calendar set to change for 2013-2014

New law will give school districts more options.

After North Carolina Governor Bev. Perdue signed a new calendar law earlier this month, Macon County School System's annual calendar has once again become a topic of discussion.

The new bill, which was approved in the last legislative session that concluded earlier this month, will change the state's calendar law beginning in the 2013-2014 school year. The new law will no longer allow Macon County and other districts to start early to avoid winter weather that often delays the exam schedule that occurs before the winter break. The bill directs all school districts with a regular calendar to begin on the Monday closest to August 26 and districts that receive a weather waiver must start on the Monday closest to August 19.

Over the last few years, lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum have debated with local school boards and community organizations about when schools should be mandated to start and end. Macon County is slated to begin the new school year on Aug. 9, which will mark the second year that the school district has received a special waiver from the state to open early to account for projected snow days throughout the year.

In addition to the new start date mandates, the legislation states that the traditional 185 day instructional requirement will no longer be law, but instead it gives local districts the option for students to either receive 1,025 hours of instruction time or attend school for 185 days. However, the law still requires attendance for "at least nine calendar months.”

According to Louise Lee of Save our Summers - NC (SOS-NC), 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 new law is not an ultimatum to go 1,025 hours, but instead allows local systems to choose a combination of days/hours in order to make up missed instructional time.

SOS-NC filed a petition against the State Board of Education in June of 2011, challenging their decision to grant Macon County an educational waiver to start early. SOS-NC was also instrumental in helping to draft the legislation which now gives local districts more control of the school calendar.

“Groups such as the N.C. School Board Association have been quick to point out that school systems could now finish the year in just 158 days (1,025 divided by 6.5 hrs.) - a calculation that I believe has caused needless worry on the part of parents and teachers,” said Lee. “For one thing, the nine month attendance requirement is still law. Also, with the huge national agenda to extend the school year beyond 185 days, it is unrealistic to think that N.C. will suddenly undertake a massive shift to drastically shorten the school calendar. If a district chooses to initially set a calendar for fewer than 185 days, it is not the fault of the law - that is a local decision, and the state Association of Administrators, the N.C. School Board Association, and other leaders have been lobbying for more ‘local control’ ever since the school calendar law changed in 2004. ”

According to Sen. Jim Davis (R-50) the new calendar law was designed to give more control back to local school boards. “The law was intended to give schools more flexibility ... it was an attempt to give local districts more control of their calendar,” he said.

Davis pointed out that last winter Macon County Schools were forced to attend school on a Saturday because of inclement weather and then were off the following Monday because of a teacher workday that was mandated in the calendar. According to Davis, the new law should prevent things like that from happening. “We wanted to try to cut out that sort of thing,” said Davis.

Davis also stated that the decision behind the new law was also formed around “powerful forces” in Raleigh that push for designated start and end dates in order to cater to the summer camps that have to have students attend in order to operate and businesses that depend on teachers and students to fill their staff.

Lee credits some of the calendar law changes to a strong grassroots effort.

“It is not the responsibility of, for example, travel and tourism lobbyists to monitor and challenge waiver decisions on a regular basis. Since state agencies aren't fulfilling that vital role, SOS-NC volunteers do their best to fill that void for the entire state, throughout the year,” explained Lee. “Thus, the bulk of waiver information shared with legislators this year was provided by Save Our Summers-NC. It was the abundance of documented waiver abuses and violations that necessitated changes to the law."

According to Macon County interim superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan, the new law does not give local school boards more control, but instead restricts them. “I am not one to agree with legislation determining open and start dates,” said Dr. Duncan. “I believe that local school boards should make that decision based on what is best for their district.”

Lee argued that “such a law would never have been necessary in the first place had school districts listened to their parents and teachers instead of abusing the power they had by setting unreasonable start and end dates.”

Dr. Duncan, who is anticipated to serve as superintendent until January, will be working with Macon County staff members to create the 2013- 2014 calendar, which is typically set by the end of December. “The new law will affect our school dates because we will be starting at least a week later the next year,” said Duncan. “Our district will have to study more and will follow state law, while making the best calendar possible for our students. Our top priority is to have our students finish exams prior to the winter break. It makes good educational sense and it gives everyone a fresh start for the new semester.”

“The school calendar law took into consideration what would work for all students, not just those who take exams,” said Lee. "While I can understand the convenience for some of taking exams before Christmas break, it is a preference, not a necessity, with no proven evidence that it makes a difference academically. Some systems have been very innovative when it comes to reasons for waivers, when the true intent is admittedly to get exams in before the end of December - a reason, by the way, that will not stand up before the State Board of Education.”

The way the new law is written has left a few unanswered questions for school officials. “I would like some clarification regarding the 1,025-hour requirement,” said Duncan. “If you consider that right now we are set up to go about 6 hours a day, that divided into 1,025 would mean a lot less days, which I don't think anyone wants.”

Board member Stephanie McCall said that the Board of Education will abide by the new law while still keeping the best interest of the students in mind. “The law means we will have to work with the calendar committee to come up with a calendar that keeps the education of our children in mind,” said McCall. “Our top priority is to make sure that prior to Christmas, all of our students are tested.”

McCall noted that the new law further influences Macon County specifically because the school board is charged with the task of having a universal start date for the entire district while accommodating schools like Nantahala and Highlands who are often faced with inclement weather and schools like Macon Early College who have to sync their calendar with Southwestern Community College.

“We plan to work within the limits of the law of course,” said McCall.“But I think it is better for local board to be in charge of calendars because every county has their own unique situations.”

Without a specific number of days requirement, individual school districts can decide to go longer days as long as they reach the 1,025 hours. According to McCall, that has yet to be discussed for Macon County, but she said it hasn't been crossed off the list either. “There has not been any talk of longer school days so far but right now, all options are all on the table,” she said.

Another key piece of the new school calendar law once again changes the criteria for what constitutes a missed day. Schools will no longer be able to count late starts and early dismissals as a full day missed. For the past two years, Macon County has counted late starts and early dismissals, which has allowed the district to receive the weather waiver that has enabled them to start early in an effort to make up for predicted inclement weather. Without being able to count those days, Macon County will no longer qualify for the weather waiver.

According to Davis, it is likely that the weather waiver option will eventually be omitted for all districts across the state. “It appears to be the predominant sentiment for the weather waiver to go away,” said Davis.

Without a weather waiver, Macon County will be faced with the daunting task of scrambling to make up for lost days in the event of a harsh winter, a task that Lee admits can be a challenge, but one that should now be more manageable. “Other systems make it work, just as Macon County has in years past. Now, however, they have more control over make-up time,” she said. “The ‘OR’ phrase was included to give districts more flexibility. For example, if Macon County misses 10 inclement weather days, they can make up as many as they can, but increase hours on other days to make up the difference.”


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