Kentucky lawmakers at odds on 'snow day' legislation, leaving school districts in limbo

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMarch 17, 2014 

Two snowplows cleared snow from a street. in March.

PHOTO BY CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

FRANKFORT — With leading lawmakers at loggerheads, Kentucky school districts remain in limbo as they attempt to finalize the calendar for a school year pocked with snow days.

The Republican-led Senate approved a bill Monday that would require school districts to provide students with the usual 1,062 hours of instruction, although it would allow districts to extend the school day to meet that requirement.

However, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the Senate plan is too complicated and that lawmakers from the House and Senate probably will have to negotiate their differences on the legislation.

The Democratic-led House has already approved a separate bill that would give school districts the power to eliminate up to 10 days of school because of bad weather without justifying the decision to the Kentucky Department of Education.

"The simpler the better, and the sooner we get answers to the districts the better," Stumbo said of proposed legislation dealing with snow days. "I would rather give the superintendents the option. They know better than anybody else what they are facing locally."

The Senate takes a dim view of the House bill because it does not require school districts to plan on how to partially compensate for lost snow days by using scheduled makeup days, Republican senators said.

"It was well-intentioned, but it's basically just a free gift of 10 days," Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, said of the House proposal while speaking to colleagues ahead of the Senate vote.

Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, said he counted at least 13 scheduled days off at his local school district from August to December, knocking nearly three instructional weeks off the calendar before the worst winter weather began.

"We're taking all these holidays and weekend breaks ... I wonder if we're putting students first," Girdler said.

Under the Senate's latest proposal, districts that need to alter their calendar must submit to the state by May 1 a plan that provides 1,062 instructional hours for students. To meet that requirement, districts could lengthen school days, although no day could exceed seven hours without the approval of the state commissioner of education. The commissioner would be required to approve all plans that meet the bill's criteria.

If district officials feel they can't provide the required instructional time, they can ask the commissioner of education to waive instructional days, but the commissioner would decide those requests on a case-by-case basis.

"It would depend on what their need is and what steps they've taken to actually accomplish the 1,062 (hours) before we could decide what that waiver amount is going to be," said Kay Kennedy, director of the Division of District Support for the Kentucky Department of Education.

After the Senate Education Committee approved House Bill 211 Monday, Givens said he didn't know how many districts might ask for a waiver.

Some school districts, such as Jackson, Leslie and Wolfe counties, have missed more than 30 days.

Givens said the bill provided flexibility and clarity for all districts, but sets a precedent for how the issue of snow days and the school calendar should be handled in the future. By holding districts to the required 1,062 hours of instruction "we say that education matters," Givens said.

Amanda Ferguson, a Fayette County School Board member who serves as the board's legislative liaison, was at the committee meeting Monday.

"It does allow some flexibility, which is what I wanted for districts," said Ferguson. "I think we are seriously going to have to get out a calculator and figure out how many hours we've gone."

Fayette County has cancelled 13 days due to ice and snow. It has held or scheduled 10 makeup days, but leaders have not yet decided when the school year will end.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears

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