School calendar poses dilemma
by Kellen Moore
The board received three calendar options for the 2013-14 school year at a work session Monday, all of which comply with a new state law changing the requirements for school start and end dates. Each comes with its own set of concerns.
"I feel like I'm giving you bad scenarios and worse scenarios, and I apologize for that," said Wayne Eberle, executive director of learning development for Watauga County Schools.
The statute now says that schools must provide 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction per school year. Schools previously had to meet both thresholds.
The law also states that schools may not open earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26, 2013, and must close no later than the Friday closest to June 11, 2014.
In special cases, the state Board of Education may allow a school system to open one week earlier - the Monday closest to Aug. 19, 2013.
The changes, passed during the final week of the General Assembly's summer session, cripple western school systems like Watauga that traditionally miss several snow days, board members agreed.
Watauga County usually starts school sometime between Aug. 7 and Aug. 12 to get the first semester completed by Christmas break.
Eberle presented three options:
— Option A - School begins Aug. 19 and ends June 2. The first semester does not end until Jan. 15. This option assumes Watauga County can get a waiver from the state. Option A would include 180 days and 1,157.5 hours.
— Option B - School begins Aug. 26 and ends June 9. The first semester does not end until Jan. 23. Option B also would include 180 days and 1,157.5 hours.
— Option C - School begins Aug. 19 and ends May 9. Option C is the only one that ends the first semester before Christmas break, on Dec. 19. This option also assumes Watauga County can get a waiver from the state. But Option C would include only 164 days and 1,053.5 hours.
All three options start on Monday, and all three keep the current start and end times.
In the 2011-12 school year, students completed 180 days and 1,054 hours, Eberle said.
Several board members said they felt students and teachers would prefer to complete first-semester exams before Christmas break — a possibility offered only by Option C.
"I do not prefer these later start dates, even Aug. 19," Superintendent David Kafitz said. "I feel like we're doing a disservice to our students by not ending the first semester before Christmas in any school system."
Having only 164 student days could reduce learning opportunities for students and provide at least 16 fewer days of guaranteed meals for students on free and reduced lunches, board members noted.
It also would cut the pay of at-will employees such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
"It really kicks them in the tail," board member Steve Combs said.
Chairwoman Deborah Miller noted that the school system already has a tough time recruiting bus drivers and cafeteria staff due to the meager pay offered.
The board generally opposed Option B, the Aug. 26 start date, due to the effect on early graduates from high school.
About 25 to 35 students are typically eligible to graduate high school a semester early, Eberle said.
Many of those then begin higher education at Appalachian State University or Caldwell Community College in the spring semester, which could be a challenge if they are finished with high school until mid-January.
The concerns may be moot if the General Assembly reconsiders the calendar law when it reconvenes in January.
Kafitz said the vote was taken at the last second this summer, and many legislators did not realize the calendar language had changed. He said he had spoken to Rep. Jonathan Jordan and Sen. Dan Soucek and both expressed interest in changing the wording.
"It is widely known that this is a gaffe on the part of the legislature for western North Carolina, and it needs to be fixed," Kafitz said.
Board member Delora Hodges said parents need to become aware of the issues involved and contact their legislators.
"If they're going to have a voice, they need to do it now," she said.
The calendar committee will convene Aug. 30 to begin looking at the possibilities and expects to bring a calendar recommendation before the school board at the December meeting.
"This one's going to pose a pretty interesting year and a pretty interesting task," Eberle said. "This is unlike any set of obstacles we've experienced in the past."
The calendar issue was just one of several discussed Monday in which the board expressed frustration with state-level policies they felt don't make sense locally.
"The things that work here in Watauga County do work, and they work for a reason," Miller said. "That seems to be a gap that is unfortunately widening, that they do not listen to us and they do not understand."
Kafitz, who officially started as superintendent July 1, laid out several legislative priorities he believed Watauga County Schools should lobby for or against starting in January.
Among the topics were teacher tenure, a proposal to hold back students in third grade if they do not show enough reading competency, pre-K and education funding generally, digital tools and other topics.
Miller also added that she would like to see more discussions on raising the minimum dropout age from 16 to 18.
The school system also will seek funding from the General Assembly in January for its Watauga Career Academy, a proposed school-within-a-school that would allow certain WHS students to take Caldwell Community College courses for credit starting as early as 9th grade.
WHS Principal Marshall Gasperson provided a brief update to the board Monday on the academy, which is slated to begin in fall 2013.