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County school board struggles with next year's academic calendar [Reisterstown]

Barry Rascovar
Barry Rascovar

Baltimore County's school board finds itself in a quandary as it grapples with next year's school calendar.

That never posed a monumental problem until now, thanks to a move by Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., that strips local boards of the power to tailor their school year according to each subdivision's education needs.

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Hogan has issued two executive orders forbidding local school systems from starting the 2017-18 year before Labor Day or ending classes after June 15.

The governor made no secret of his desire to intrude on local school autonomy so Ocean City merchants could benefit from more families vacationing at the beach over the Labor Day weekend.

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Educators were aghast that Hogan would ignore the benefits of an earlier start to classroom work for kids, especially children from lower-income homes who don't have the resources for vacations at the beach.

Local education boards and kids find themselves caught in a political battle. Hogan wants to curry favor with Ocean City business owners and families that love the idea of an extra week together instead of returning home for an August start to the school year.

"Children shouldn't be used as a pawn," said Del. Adrienne Jones, the Baltimore County delegate who chairs the House's education budget panel. "I think that it is an overreach" by the governor that could be reversed by a judge.

Or the General Assembly could return control over the calendar to local school boards. That wouldn't happen, though, until early next year and could be delayed if a second vote is needed to override the governor's likely veto.

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It doesn't give Baltimore County's board much flexibility. Indeed, next year's school schedule might not be set any time soon.

Local leaders were hoping they could gain an exemption from Hogan's order from the state education board but Hogan's second order effectively stripped the previously independent state panel of its powers on this issue.

"He's undermined his own board of education," grumbled one member, who worried about the negative impact a later start to the school year will have on kids.

Research shows that an earlier return to classes helps students retain information from the spring semester. An early start also benefits kids from poor households because they get nutritious meals at school.

Additionally, a pre-Labor Day start hurts students taking standardized tests for admission to AP classes, college entrance exams and statewide learning assessments. They will have less preparation because those test dates are set nationwide.

For now, the county school board is developing three alternatives. One follows Hogan's mandate, requiring a truncated spring break — just a long weekend — and no professional development day that coincides with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

That will anger Muslim parents who have fought for nearly a decade for the right to have one of their holy days honored the same as other religious groups.

A second plan is similar to the first but has no day off for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. County schools have been closed on that day for almost 20 years.

A third plan defies Hogan's order, starting school Aug. 28, 2017 and concluding on June 19, 2018. That plan has room for a six-day spring break, a Rosh Hashanah holiday and a professional development day on Eid al-Adha.

Most likely, the school board will have to bide its time until there's a court ruling or the state legislature decides whether to overturn Hogan's power grab. Either way, it's a waiting game for Baltimore County schools, parents and kids.

Barry Rascovar's blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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