Schools battle state-mandated calendar

Canceling school is a tougher decision than most people think, especially when superintendents consider the state-mandated calendar.

Catawba County schools were canceled Thursday after roads were deemed hazardous after winter weather hit the area. Superintendents and officials from county school systems toured the county at 4 a.m. to determine road conditions and ultimately choosing to cancel schools. The decision of when to make-up the day lost is hard to consider.

"(The calendar) makes it a lot harder (to make a canceling decision)," said Dr. Barry Redmond, Newton-Conover City Schools superintendent. "Safety is our decision first. Whenever we close schools, it impacts families to find child care. We look at a lot of different angles when trying to make the call, as well as (remembering) our employees, too."

Under the state-mandated calendar, schools are required to start on or after Aug. 25 and finish the school year on or before June 10. The only way a school can vary from these guidelines is to file a waiver.

"The tourism industry got the legislatures to do (the calendar), so families can have open windows for vacation into late summer," Redmond said.

Schools are required to be in session 180 days and 1,000 hours with about 10 holidays a school year. For high school students, their semester goes over into January, leaving teachers concerned about academic progress after a two-week vacation.

"Exams are after Christmas," said Pat Hensley, assistant superintendent of human resources. High school teachers hate the Christmas break coming (before the semester ends). They much prefer starting a little bit earlier and finishing up in December."

The state's calendar also hurts staff development.

"(The state) cut the number of days for teachers from 220 to 215 for work," Redmond said. "Then designated that we must have a protected work day at the end of each nine weeks and at the beginning of school. Five days are protected, so we can't have meetings on those days, and we can't schedule those days as make-up days."

The protected work days are for teachers to work in their classrooms and student grades. However, Redmond explained younger teachers are found in school on the protected work days more so than veteran teachers, who use annual leave time to take a day off. Because the day is protected for teachers, there isn't anything administration can do to change the day as a make-up day or schedule a workshop for staff development.

"We quit designating snow days and take each situation (as it comes)," said Carleen Crawford, Catawba County Schools public information officer. "We are trying to preserve time off in the spring."

However, school system administrations are waiting patiently to hear if the state legislature will release their hand from school calendars and give authority back to local authorities to designate school start and end dates.

"It's like having a really tight budget," Hensley said. "If we go back to the old calendar, it will be a shorter summer (for one school year), but (students) will start earlier and get out earlier."

Hensley said it's unknown when the legislature could make a decision and if that decision will go into effect in the 2011-12 school year.

Meanwhile, with a tight calendar, NCCS and CCS are working in a make-up day for Thursday's inclement weather cancellation.

Redmond said NCCS is considering a make-up day in January, pending the school board's approval.

CCS will make Friday a full day for students, as opposes to its previously scheduled half day for winter break. Upon canceling school, Thursday was marked as a teacher work day with no students in school. Students will have early release Monday, pending no future issues Friday.

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