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Opinion Editorial: No Need to Change the Calendar

The Stafford County School Board is currently considering a major change in the School Year Calendar that could result in students returning to the classroom  in early August.   The proposed change would take effect in the 2019-2020 School Year.

We have previously reported on the calendar proposals that includes an option to begin school in the second week of August and end the last week of May.  Several surrounding counties (all that Stafford County share a border with) have made the change to a pre-Labor Day start for their school year. Stafford is now considering following suit.

The proposed change has been discussed over the past couple of years and the one thing that is clear is there is no clear consensus on the preference of all the stakeholders.   As we reported the most recent pulse taken, in late 2017, the school division administration surveyed parents and staff and both resulted in a near 50-50 split on preference to start before or after Labor Day.

Proponents of a pre-Labor Day start have pointed towards the benefits of being able to complete the first semester of the school year before Winter Break, the added time to prepare for Advance Placement testing, and being able to close out the school year soon after SOL tests complete.   Opponents to pre-Labor Day start have concerns about disruption to family vacation plans, hotter days of August in school buses and in school buildings, and disruption to student schedules  that benefit from the current schedule.

There has been little evidence presented that show true pros and cons of a pre-Labor Day start.   Recently the state of Maryland conducted a study and found economic benefits of starting school after Labor Day, but there was very little evidence of student achievement changes.  There have been other studies including one from 2015 reported on by the Virginia Pilot – that, low and behold, focused on the economic benefits of starting post-Labor Day.  One thing is clear with the studies of this issue; state governments need to not look at schools as pawns in their greater game of economic development.  The education of our children should focus on student achievement and not how many days Kings Dominion can be open.  Local control of the school divisions needs to be supported by state legislators. . .but we digress.

Another point of discussion has been the cost difference between a pre and post Labor Day start.   Costs of air conditioning all buildings  with a pre-Labor Day start  could cause a spike in energy costs.   However, in Dr. Benson’s presentation an analysis done by division leadership found there could be a net savings between increased cost in August and savings in June.    Stafford County also has very few buses (only 4% of the fleet) that currently have air conditioning. While members of the School Board who support a pre-Labor Day start have stated retrofitting all school buses with air conditioning is a must, it will be a costly effort to retrofit buses and maintain air conditioning in all buses.  School Board Member Dewayne McOsker (George Washington District) estimates the cost as much as $1.6 million to retrofit buses.

There is no clear answer to the dilemma the School Board faces.   However, the wrong answer is to make a change to the School Year Calendar just because everyone else is doing it.  Without a clear understanding, plan and disclosure on how the added costs of making a change will be covered now is not the right time.  The school division is severely underfunded by the Board of Supervisors and adding cost will hurt no one more than the school division staff.   Stafford County educators and other staff have long fought for better pay; a burden they fight year and year out, sometimes with wins most times with losses.   Adding costs to the school division when funding is so scarce is going to make their battle that much more difficult.   Stafford County will again struggle to retain teachers and will continue to be faced with understaffed schools leading us back to over crowded classrooms.

In our opinion now is not the right time for Stafford County Public Schools to join the crush of those around us to change the School Year Calendar to a pre-Labor Day start.

First making such a drastic change in one year from starting the day after Labor Day to nearly a month prior in the second week of August will be difficult for many families to adjust.  If there is a desire the School Board should phase it in over a period of two or three years.

Second with no solid documented evidence on the benefits of a pre-Labor Day start the School Board should wait and see.   While other jurisdictions have made a change there is a great opportunity for Stafford County Public Schools to collect data and study if there are any true benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

Third with uncertain costs the risks are too high for the School Board to make a change.  The School Board needs to be very cautious about how it spends valued taxpayer money.   The focus over the last several years has been to improve compensation models to enable improved compensation for employees.  There has been too much progress made on that front to put it all at risk now.   Unless the School Board can document an agreement with the Board of Supervisors that any changes in costs due to a pre-Labor Day start will be covered by a direct matching increase in funding the School Board should not risk the increased cost to the detriment of potential salary enhancements.   While there are benefits for the instructional staff of additional planning time and time off for Winter Break with a pre-Labor Day start, not all division staff will have the same benefits.

Fourth four years ago the Stafford County School Board adopted a Strategic Plan for the division.   There has been little direct correlation between this decision and the Strategic Plan.  Proponents may point to Student Achievement goals within the Strategic Plan, but with little evidence to demonstrate student achievement benefits in a pre-Labor Day start change the argument does not hold much water.    The School Board should remain committed to making decisions aligned with the Strategic Plan.  With no clear evidence of a benefit for student achievement and potential detriments to staff compensation the School Year Calendar should not be changed.

Finally, Dr. Bruce Benson, Superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools, announced his resignation earlier this year.  The School Board is in the midst of a Superintended search to identify Benson’s replacement.   Making such a major change to the school division as a new leader is being sought is not wise.  Potential candidates should be asked about school year calendars during the interview process and be able to articulate their position on a pre or post Labor Day start or their views on how to best optimize the school year calendar.   The new Superintendent should have the opportunity to evaluate the as-is situation with Stafford County Public Schools.  Making such a large disruption in the school division and in the community can make for a very difficult situation for the new Superintendent to adjust to.   It has the potential of setting up the new leader for failure from day one.   The School Board should not change the calendar at this time and enable the new Superintendent to influence the process provide input and look to future years to study surrounding county pros and cons to a pre-Labor Day start and make a decision on a future calendar.

The worst thing the School Board could do at the moment is make a change to the 2019-2020 School Year Calendar and in the relative short term determine it was a wrong decision and return to a post-Labor Day start in less than five years.   The evidence should be clear that a change will benefit student achievement, be accepted by the community, be appropriately funded and not be detrimental to Stafford County Public Schools’ employees.  With the absence of all of these points the School Board, in our opinion, should not adopt a 2019-2020 School Year Calendar that starts before Labor Day.  The School Board should work with the new Superintendent to set a clear path to study pros and cons of school year calendar options and make a decision on future calendars that is in-line with the Strategic Plan, benefits student achievement and improves the work environment for employees.


School Bus Safety

Kids getting on and off that school bus is a dangerous time for the kids if drivers are not paying attention or do not obey the law for stopping for school buses.  As Stafford County continues to grow and more and more cars are on the road school bus safety is  a growing problem that can be difficult to address.

Many bus drivers will honk horns and attempt to warn drivers when they drive past a stop school bus with it’s lights on and stop sign extended.   Unfortunately, bus drivers and the kids are relatively powerless to do anything else if there is no law enforcement officers present to issues citations for violations.

With Virginia being a “Dillon Rule” state the local county and school division are limited in what they can do to empower bus drivers to report violations and cite drivers for violations.  However, a couple of years ago the state did add an option to the tool box localities can use to cite violators.   State code allows local Boards of Supervisors to adopt ordinances that would allow drivers to be cited and fined with a civil penalty based on video recordings from camera’s on buses.

B. A locality may, by ordinance, authorize the school division of the locality to install and operate a video-monitoring system in or on the school buses operated by the division or to contract with a private vendor to do so on behalf of the school division for the purpose of recording violations of subsection (§ 46.2-844. Passing stopped school buses; penalty; prima facie evidence.

Stafford County has not yet taken the steps necessary to upgrade bus camera systems to record outside of school buses, nor has the Board of Supervisors considered the required local ordinance.   Stafford County school buses are equipped with cameras to record the inside of the bus, mostly for purposes of student safety, adding the required camera to the exterior of the bus would not be a significant cost per bus (adding the required camera to all of the buses in the fleet at one time would be costly).

The maximum civil fine that can be applied is $200 per violation.  By reports of school bus drivers in Stafford County they see numerous violations every day, and with the appropriate cameras and ordinance the fines would be a significant deterrent to drivers violating stopped school bus laws.   Collected fines can be directed straight to the school division to help cover costs of adding additional cameras, and making other improvements to buses and bus safety.