Policy would give school boards control over calendar

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- County school boards will have more flexibility when designing their school calendars -- but they'll also be held more accountable for keeping students in school for 180 days, thanks to a new policy unveiled by the state Board of Education on Thursday. The policy would require counties to develop a calendar that guarantees at least 180 days of instruction -- including a plan to compensate for inclement weather. County school boards would also have to hold at least two public hearings before voting on a schedule."This gives the entire community a chance to talk about the calendar now," said Joe Panetta, an assistant superintendent for the state Department of Education."In the past, [school boards] were required to schedule 180 days, but if they had to cancel and didn't have the time to make them up, they were forgiven. But now, they're actually required to provide 180 separate days of instruction," Panetta said. "In the past, they had have plans in place, but now they are required to have an official county policy to deal with those things."State Board of Education members voted Thursday to place the policy on public comment for 30 days. It's expected to go into effect for the 2014-15 school year.The policy replaces Policy 3234, which was related only to year-round education programs, and instead will set forth general criteria for a basic school calendar policy.The new policy, which is the result of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill, would require faculty senates to meet during non-instructional days -- unless employees have earned efficient accrued instructional time -- in order to prevent schools from canceling class for professional development, Panetta said.State Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares said the policy is supposed to allow local board as much flexibility as possible so that they can develop a calendar that best meets their specific needs."We're not cracking down on counties, we're providing guidance," Phares said. "Our charge was to try to provide as much flexibility for counties in order to meet the guidelines."Phares said that while he is aware of rumors that the state is moving toward year-round school, that's not what this legislation is about. It's about making sure students receive 180 days of instruction, while leaving it up to county officials when, exactly, they attend.
For example, Phares said, a school district in a region that gets a lot of snow may choose to avoid sending students to class when bad weather is expected."It's one of the questions that normally comes up... no matter how many times you say it, but this isn't about year-round school, this is about local counties being able to develop the calendar that best meets their needs," Phares said. "This was not designed with the intent to force everyone to go to year-round school. We want and hope that through these policy hearings the counties have, that those discussions come up and they make a meaningful decision for what's best in their county."Phares did not say whether he is for or against year-round schools, but said he supports local control."I've stated my personal opinion on this and this is how I feel about it: I support the local boards of education making the decision that's best for their county," he said.Kanawha County Schools will address its calendar plans for the next school year at a board meeting at 6 p.m. on Oct. 17.
The county's branch of the West Virginia Education Association has voiced concerns that the early start date imposed this year has negatively impacted both students and teachers.The district voted to start school this year on Aug. 9 -- the earliest start date ever for Kanawha schools.The Kanawha County Board of Education has also heard fears from parents that it is planning to implement year-round school, but board members say there are no plans in the near future to move that direction.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814. 
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