The state school board signaled Tuesday that it will streamline decisions on granting waivers to local boards of education that don't want to go along with Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order pushing the start of school until after Labor Day next year.
After a spirited discussion at its regular monthly meeting about who controls education policy, the board adopted a resolution saying it intends to approve such exceptions "expeditiously" as long as the local boards can provide "reasonable explanations of the educational benefits to students."
Hogan issued his executive order Aug. 31 in Ocean City, saying that extending summer vacation through August would boost the state's tourism. While lawmakers have questioned the legality of the executive order, a recent Goucher Poll showed that voters approved of the governor's decision even if they questioned his method.
A number of state school board members said they believed local school boards should decide the calendar for students. Meanwhile, the governor's office signaled that it wants the state board to adhere strictly to the provisions of Hogan's order.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said board member Andy Smarick and Superintendent Karen Salmon both assured the governor's office that the board will in no way approve waivers before regulations have been adopted "as the executive order clearly requires."
Mayer noted that the executive order requires a "compelling justification" for a waiver.
"That's why the regulations need to be promulgated," said Mayer, adding that process should take about 90 days.
Smarick's interpretation was slightly different, however. He said it is possible that new regulations might not make it through the state rule-making process until sometime in the spring. That could complicate decision-making for school districts as they put together their 2017-2018 calendars.
The resolution calls for interim guidelines to be drawn up for the next school year, said Smarick, a Hogan appointee. The formal regulations would then govern 2018-2019 and subsequent school years.
"How do we begin the implementation process, realizing that this is something districts are grappling with right now?" Smarick said. "I don't want to tell you everyone is of the same mind on the policy, but there is a difference between the policy and the implementation process."
Smarick declined to comment on the policy itself.
School board member Laura Weeldreyer, another Hogan appointee, said the board "wanted this resolution and the forthcoming guidance to be clear that the state board is encouraging waiver requests and that this is an issue that belongs to the locals."
She asked: "What could be more fundamental to education policy than instructional time?"
Until Tuesday, school board members, the majority of whom are Hogan appointees, had not weighed in on the Labor Day issue. Hogan's order not only said that the public school year could not start until after Labor Day, but that schools had to dismiss for the summer by June 15.
That left local school boards trying to figure out which vacation days to cut, and a number have suggested that they will eliminate some or most of spring break.
Weeldreyer said there is a lot of research that shows low-income students are the most likely to backslide academically during long summer breaks without stimulating educational opportunities. Low-income students are also less likely to have the resources to visit Ocean City, she said.
"The state board could not have been clearer" about its intent to approve waivers, said John Woolums, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, who was at the meeting.
He predicted that at least several school systems will ask for them.
Montgomery County is likely one of them. The county board has asked the association to fight to overturn the governor's order.
One of the strongest proponents of delaying the school year until after Labor Day is Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who successfully lobbied the Republican governor to support the move.
Alan Brody, a spokesman for Franchot, said Tuesday that the comptroller had not heard about the school board's move. He declined to comment.
Sen. James Mathias, a Democrat and former Ocean City mayor who sponsored legislation calling for a post-Labor Day start, said he was not surprised by the school board's action.
"We'll have to see how it all works out," said Mathias, who represents Worcester County, which already starts its school year after Labor Day.