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Maryland state school board eyes possible loophole in governor's order on school calendars

When Gov. Larry Hogan tightened his executive order to start all public schools after Labor Day, he blocked some educators from wiggling out of the mandate by seeking waivers. But members of the state school board may have stumbled on a loophole.

Board members learned Tuesday that the law fails to define a category of schools that could receive a waiver. Hogan originally said waivers could only be granted by the state board for "compelling justification." Then he narrowed the requirements so waivers could only be granted at charter schools and those deemed "low-performing" or "at-risk."

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"There's a clear definition for low-performing. There's a clear definition for a charter. But we don't have a state definition for an at-risk school," Tiara Booker-Dwyer, director of leadership development and school improvement, told the board. "Depending on how broadly we decide to define that will determine how many schools can be included for the waiver request."

"Our jaws dropped," said school board President Andrew Smarick.

The revelation led to some playfulness among board members.

"I move that every school in Maryland that is not at 100 percent proficiency is at risk," Vice President Chester Finn said jokingly.

Finn was appointed by Hogan, but he has criticized the governor's order to narrow the waiver requirements. School administrators have also bristled over the mandate. Only Worcester County's public schools consistently started after Labor Day before Hogan's order.

"Starting school after Labor Day is a common-sense decision that the overwhelming majority of Marylanders support," Amelia Chasse, spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement Tuesday. "The issue of at-risk schools is an extremely serious one that affects Maryland students and families, and we trust that the board will treat it with the gravity it deserves."

Last summer, Hogan announced with much fanfare the requirement that all public schools start after Labor Day and end by June 15. His executive order pushed back the start of school this year to Sept. 5. The governor and supporters of the change said starting school after Labor Day would extend families' summer vacations, help seasonal businesses in Ocean City, and pump money into the state economy.

The state school board responded last September by announcing it would act "expeditiously" if local school districts wanted a waiver from the post-Labor Day start. Hogan tightened the requirements for waivers in response.

Maryland State Department of Education staff members discovered the possible loophole about "at-risk" waivers while compiling a report this year about innovative approaches to school schedules. The loophole has been the subject of interest ever since.

"There were a lot of conversations about this," board member Michele Jenkins Guyton said at Tuesday's meeting. "There are lots of ways to include a whole lot of schools in this definition."

Smarick said the definition of "at-risk" might mean special-education students or even those gifted children who need to be challenged.

"We just have never defined it," he said.

School districts in Allegany and Garrett counties have already received waivers from the state board because they routinely close several days a year due to heavy snowfall. Ten Baltimore City schools, including six charters and four deemed low-performing, received waivers. One charter school in St. Mary's County has also been granted a waiver to reset its calendar, according to the state education department.

On Tuesday, board members asked staff to research further whether an official definition of at-risk schools had ever been established. Staff members are expected to report their findings at the board's meeting next month.

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"May I just suggest that we push on this issue," said Finn, "so we can enable as many schools and districts as wish to to be innovative with respect to their scheduling."

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