Over the holiday recess, Mr. Superintendent was reading the 2014 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and he didn’t like what he saw. The forecast was for terrible snow in the Northeast, starting in the middle of January and continuing until the end of March. After the scheduling problems in recent years, Mr. Superintendent did not want to face another crisis at the end of the school year, and he figured that the Nutmeg Board of Education should add some additional snow days this year.
Mr. Superintendent presented his plan at the first meeting in January. “With the coming snow,” he started, “we should change the school calendar by cancelling the February vacation. That way, we will have five more snow days in the calendar if we need them. We should also set a firm graduation date now so that we can go ahead with graduation even if we have a bunch of snow days. Are you with me?”
“Not really,” responded veteran Board member Bob Bombast. “Families in Nutmeg plan their vacations years in advance. If you want to eliminate February vacation next year, I will consider your proposal. But this February is fast upon us, and it would be unfair to Nutmeg families to change the vacation schedule now. Besides, if we run into a problem, the State can waive the school year requirements.”
By contrast, Mal Content is a worrywart, and he supported the plan. “I agree that we should cancel the February vacation. Besides, if parents want to pull their kids out of school for a family vacation, they can. What do we care?” he offered.
“My head hurts!” interjected Penny Pincher. “Do we have to decide this now?”
“I am with you, Penny,” responded Bob. “Let’s put Mr. Superintendent’s idea on hold and come back and talk about it in March.”
“But by then it will be too late,” shot back an exasperated Mr. Superintendent.
“OK, OK. Message received,” responded Mr. Chairperson. “Board members, put on your thinking caps. We will address this at our next meeting. Understood?”
The Board adjourned, but now the cat was out of the bag. Each Board member was soon buried under a blizzard of angry emails from Nutmeg parents. Given how the Nutmeg Board of Education operates, they were used to that, of course. But a pointed email from Bruno, the President of the Nutmeg Union of Teachers, gave them pause. “Plans have been made! Deposits have been paid!” the email began. “If the Board persists in its plan to eliminate February vacation, we will bring you up on charges before the State Board of Labor Relations!”
That sealed the deal for Bob Bombast. At the next meeting of the Board, he made a motion to reject the Superintendent’s plan to change the school calendar. That motion was promptly seconded, and to Mr. Superintendent’s chagrin, it passed unanimously. Did the Nutmeg Board of Education handle this issue appropriately?
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Setting the school calendar is one of the many challenges that boards of education in Connecticut face. However, that is scheduled to change soon.
Sections 321-324 of Public Act 13-247 provide that by April 1, 2014, RESCs in Connecticut must establish a uniform school calendar for their respective regions that conform to the following guidelines:
Such guidelines for a uniform regional school calendar shall include, but not be limited to, (1) at least one hundred eighty days of actual school sessions during each school year, (2) a uniform start date, (3) uniform days for professional development and in-service training for certified employees . . . and (4) not more than three uniform school vacation periods during each school year, not more than two of which shall be a one week school vacation period and one of which shall be during the summer.
Boards of education may adopt such uniform school calendar for 2014-2015, but in 2015-2016, boards of education must adopt the uniform calendar.
No matter what the calendar is, superintendents must decide when to cancel school because of weather, and there are a number of rules related to scheduling school sessions following such cancellations. Section 10-15 requires that there be at least 180 school sessions each year, and it also provides that school may not be scheduled on a Saturday or a Sunday. That same statute also provides that the State Board of Education may approve a request an alternative schedule for a single year that assures that students receive at least 900 hours (450 hours for nursery school and half-day kindergarten) of actual school work. That said, the State Board of Education is almost certainly not going to approve fewer than 180 school sessions because of inclement weather. Since 2001, three different Commissioners of Education has warned that such waivers have not been granted in the recent past and that school boards must explore every alternative before such a waiver will be granted.
Part of Mr. Superintendent’s plan was to set a firm graduation date, and Section 10-16l of the General Statutes permits the Board to do just that. Specifically, it provides that “a local or regional board of education may establish for any school year a firm graduation date for students in grade twelve which is no earlier than the one hundred eighty-fifth day noted in the school calendar originally adopted by the board for that school year, except that a board on or after April first in any school year may establish such a firm graduation date for that school year which at the time of such establishment provides for at least one hundred eighty days of school.” The Commissioner of Education has read the first part of this statute restrictively (requiring the scheduling of 185 days of actual school sessions in the calendar to permit districts to schedule a firm graduation date at the beginning of the year). However, after April 1 each year boards of education can schedule a firm graduation date and stick to it no matter what happens.
Contrary to what Mal Content said, parents cannot simply take their children out of school for extended vacations irrespective of the school calendar. In May, 2013, the Commissioner of Education issued guidelines for determining whether absences are excused or unexcused (which is important under the truancy statutes). Now, the first nine student absences each year may be excused by parents, but after those nine days, absences due to family vacation will usually be considered unexcused.
Finally, the Teacher Negotiation Act specifies that the length and scheduling of the school year is not a mandatory subject of negotiations, and boards of education are free to adopt and to change the school calendar without negotiations. It is advisable, however, to anticipate and announce the possible need to cancel vacation days. The teachers’ union has the right to demand negotiations over the impact of changes in the school calendar, and when boards of education provide advance notice as to how adjustments will be made in the school calendar after cancellations, they are better able to deal with union demands for impact bargaining when the calendar is changed.