Education

Kentucky school boards don't want legislature telling them when to start school year

Steve Cummins walked away from his bus after making a practice run of his route, at the Fayette Co.Public School Bus Garage on Liberty Rd.  in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 10, 2015. School starts Wednesday in Lexington. Drivers and monitors were making training runs today as well as attending training sessions at the garage. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Steve Cummins walked away from his bus after making a practice run of his route, at the Fayette Co.Public School Bus Garage on Liberty Rd. in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 10, 2015. School starts Wednesday in Lexington. Drivers and monitors were making training runs today as well as attending training sessions at the garage. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

The debate over when to begin the school year in Kentucky is revving up.

The Kentucky School Boards Association board of directors is opposing a proposal by two lawmakers — Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and state Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset — that would prevent schools from starting classes each year earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26.

Many Kentucky districts start during the first two weeks of August, but the legislators have said they would file a measure in 2016 to stop that.

"It is our position that, in order to maximize student learning, both teachers and students will maintain a greater level of focus in the classroom with a later start date to the school year as proposed in our legislation," Thayer and Girdler said in a joint statement Tuesday. "Our bill merely establishes a common start date for districts, still allowing local decision-making for calendar design."

At its quarterly meeting Saturday in Frankfort, the Kentucky School Boards Association unanimously adopted a resolution saying the matter should remain a decision of local school boards.

The group's leaders support continued local decision-making on school calendars, and they pledged to oppose any legislation that would take away any community-by-community flexibility on issues of start dates, breaks in the school year and other matters tied to the academic calendar.

Their resolution said that setting a school calendar and determining use of time are key local decisions that affect student learning, and that local school board governance is a key tenet of public education.

Association officials said the freedom already exists for local boards to set the school start date at any time, given the input of the local community and educators.

They said it's important that school districts be allowed to take into account the schedule for statewide testing and a district's response to test scores.

Association president Allen Kennedy called it a "one-size-fits-all approach for 173 school districts.

"This isn't about getting two more weeks on summer jobs for our children," Kennedy, who serves on the Hancock County school board, said in a news release. "It's about what's best to prepare them for the careers of the rest of their lives."

The group's leaders said there was a drop-off in school attendance after Memorial Day, and it's necessary to give districts flexibility in dealing with "snow, ice, flooding and flu so students get the most of their learning time."

The association's board directed the association's governmental-relations team to distribute its resolution to all members of the Kentucky House and Senate before the 2016 General Assembly, which starts in January.

The lawmakers' joint statement said it wasn't their intent to take control away from local school boards. "The school calendar situation has gotten out of control," they said.

They said there was a similar drop-off in attentiveness in the classroom in the days leading up to the Labor Day holiday.

"Our bill also includes an annual waiver opportunity for districts that have been plagued with numerous snow days."

The lawmakers said that ideally, the school calendar would be staged between the two holidays to maximize attendance, eliminate distractions and provide a better learning environment.

A later start date also would help lessen the heat stress on bus riders, heating and cooling equipment, and utility expenses, providing a better atmosphere and allowing students and teachers to be more effective, they said.

The rest of the school calendar would remain at the discretion of local school boards and — if district officials reduced the number of vacation days on other breaks — school could end before Memorial Day, the lawmakers' statement said.

On Tuesday, Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a senior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, voiced a mixed view of a later start date.

"I'd prefer it if school didn't start until late August," said Eliza Jane, a member of the Prichard Committee student voice team. "However, I know that my school district is not representative of all school districts, and I don't think a blanket requirement would be appropriate."

Fayette County school board chairman John Price said Tuesday that he agreed with the school board association leaders.

"There are good reasons in Fayette County for the way our calendar operates," Price said.

"We've tried to listen to our parents, our teachers," he said. "They say they want to get out by Memorial Day. They want to start as late as possible, but you've got to get in your number of teaching days, you've got to get in your number of holidays, your number of professional days, account for possible snow days."

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