One in a series of stories related to the start of the school year
EAST LIVERPOOL - It will likely be months before snow begins to blanket area roads with any substantial depth. However, school superintendents across Ohio are already being forced to consider how their districts will cope with canceled classes on snow days or other so-called calamity days - not just for this winter, but especially for the following school year.
The passage of the new biennial state budget, signed into law by Governor John Kasich in June, brings with it a host of changes for Ohioans. In addition to a major rework of tax policy, House Bill 59 also carries a restructuring of the school year for parents, students and school officials.
Out of a 182-day school year, districts are currently permitted five calamity days for incidents that school officials consider grounds for canceling school, such as heavy snowfall or problems with utilities. These function as free days, which districts aren't required to make up later in the school year. Beyond that limit of five, however, make-up days must be added to the year's end to fulfill the 182-day requirement.
Rather than a system that dictates a maximum number of days a school district can take off, the new model mandates only a minimum number of hours that schools must be open for classes. That minimum will vary based upon the student's grade level: 455 hours annually for half-day kindergarten, 910 hours for full-day kindergarten through grade six, and 1,001 hours for grades seven through 12.
With the new system based on a minimum of required hours, the structure of regular school days could also change when it is implemented beginning with the 2014-2015 school year. "Theoretically, if somebody wants to divide the hours and go a shorter school year with longer days, they could do that," said Beaver Local Schools Superintendent Kent Polen.
Some published reports have indicated a suspicion that the new system will allow districts to legally trim days or even weeks off their calendars in an effort to cut costs. For his part, Polen believes it was introduced to help school districts in their planning and doesn't see any backdoor effort to implement other changes. "I think they're just trying to give more control to the school districts," he said.
James Herring, superintendent of East Liverpool Schools, was mostly sanguine about the upcoming system. "I think it's a positive change," he said. "I think we need to hold everybody, myself included, to a higher standard."
When asked about the potential for the new formula leading to a shortened school year overall for students, Herring offered that the law could stand "a lot of tweaking" before implementation in the 2014-2015 school year. "I'm surely hoping that we do not shorten time for kids in school, because we need as much time as we can get with the kids," he said.
Herring also stated that present contracts with the teachers' union and OAPSE (Ohio Association of Public School Employees) workers would need to be negotiated before any changes could be made to the 182-day model. "We have to work with them to make sure that we, number one, match what the state actually tells us to do and, number two, do what's best for our kids."
Stressing that it was his personal belief, if not state law, Herring says that days that are missed should always be made up later in the year. "You just try to build within your calendar so you have a chance to make those days up," he said.
Wellsville Schools Superintendent Richard berewick said the new formula will not change his philosophy about the cancellation of classes. "When we call a calamity day, we're going to call a calamity day based on whether it's safe to put kids on the road or not," he said. "It doesn't matter how many calamity days we have or what way they're going to measure them, if it's not safe for kids to be going to school, they're not going to school."
berewick says measuring such incidences by the hour rather than by the day or half-day should not tempt school districts into more frequent early dismissals when weather conditions appear to be deteriorating over the course of an already-started school day. "Sometimes the safest place to be in that condition is here [at school]," he said. He assured parents that, in an emergency situation, children will be cared for at school until parents are able to pick them up safely.