School officials: Richmond balked on longer school year

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Local school officials are left scratching their heads after months of work on a plan to start classes before Labor Day failed to gain traction with the brass in Richmond.

The district-wide proposal required a waiver from the Virginia Board of Education, which administrators and school board members felt confident about given the support they had received from their counterparts in Richmond last fall.

It wasn’t until March 19 that state officials gave signs of reversing their position, said Superintendent Morton Sherman.

“Through January we were given every indication that the state would look favorably on that proposal,” he said. “They had raised concerns, but at no time were we told this was not meeting their expectations.”

He learned from state board member and City Councilman Rob Krupicka the state superintendent would not recommend granting Alexandria the waiver. They opted to try again, this time limiting the proposal to the middle schools and T.C. Williams, which has been designated a persistently low achieving school by state and federal officials.

By the Alexandria School Board’s May 12 meeting, they were told their colleagues in Richmond could offer less than 50-50 odds for passing a waiver for T.C. alone, said board chair Yvonne Folkerts. They opted to withdraw the request rather than wait for the state board’s May 19 meeting.

“[The state school board members] were not convinced that they could support this in the eyes of the state legislature,” she said. “When we realized the votes weren’t there and we did not have clear direction as to why they wouldn’t support it, we had no choice but to withdraw our request.”

The sticking point was in the language of the statute allowing state officials to grant the waiver, said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. Officials in Richmond felt the Alexandria proposal failed to demonstrate why classes would need to start before Labor Day, he said.

“The requirement is not only that programs be innovative, but there’s a reason it must begin before Labor Day,” Pyle said. “That’s what the law says.”

For now, it’s a moot point, though officials will send a letter to Richmond asking for clarification if they intend to try again. Dealing with what is known as the “Kings Dominion law,” named for the summer amusement park in Doswell, Va., has long been frustrating, Folkerts said.

The General Assembly barred schools from beginning before Labor Day in 1986, though allowed for districts dealing with weather-related cancellations to petition for a waiver. That was later changed to include districts with innovative or experimental programs.

Changes to the law, including a bill killed in the General Assembly this year, have met resistance from the tourism industry, Folkerts said. They argue an earlier start would keep families from travelling and force teenagers to quit their summer jobs early, she said.

Whatever the reasoning, it amounts to the state telling local districts how to run their school system, Folkerts and Sherman said.

“The thing is, every school board in state should be allowed to determine when their kids can go to school,” Folkerts said. “We have our challenges and we need that authority in our district, but the law is the law and we weren’t going to win this battle.”

Additional classroom time wasn’t enough to justify the waiver, according to Pyle. Officials felt Alexandria could roll out their existing programs without the extra time before the holiday weekend, he said.

“It’s not philosophical discussion as to whether schools should begin instruction before Labor Day,” he said. “We have to deal with the law as it is.”

Alexandria’s school board could add extra time within the school year or tack days onto the end of the calendar without going before the state board, according to Pyle.

Even that option comes with strings attached, Sherman said. The state allows districts to pick from three windows to administer the Standards of Learning tests, the final in June. That constraint aside, Sherman can’t budget beyond June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

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