Baltimore City must find one more school day after state board denies waiver request

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Baltimore City school officials must scramble to decide which remaining vacation day to take away from students and teachers this year, or risk violating Gov. Larry Hogan’s mandate defining the beginning and end of the school year.

As snow and sleet fell outside their meeting room window, the Maryland State School Board voted Tuesday against allowing the city to have one fewer school day than the 180 required by law.

Some board members chastised the city for not planning ahead and building fewer vacation days into its calendar. Across the state, school systems have needed to give up some vacation days during the school year to comply with the Hogan rule saying school must start after Labor Day and end by June 15.

While Baltimore hasn’t seen any major snowstorms this winter, schools have closed for a nor’easter, frigid cold, ice and several inches of snow. That has forced most area school systems to add days back to ensure they meet the 180-day requirement.

No school system has received a waiver from the 180-day requirement so far this year, but Wicomico County also requested one, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education. Several school systems have received waivers to open on state holidays such as Easter Monday.

The city school system argued that it has closed four days so far this year because of bad weather, but only was able to build in three extra days without cutting spring break or other holidays.

In a letter to Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the school system had looked into opening on March 26, the first scheduled day of spring break, or Memorial Day on May 28, but had decided that so many teachers and students would probably not come to school that the system would have to employ many substitute teachers.

“It is unlikely adding either day would result in high enough levels of attendance amongst staff or students to allow for regular instruction,” Santelises wrote.

The result, she said, would be understaffed buildings and an increase in the budget for substitute teachers.

State school board members were unconvinced.

A number of school board members said the city should have allotted more school days in its calendar, even if it meant cutting back the number of days for spring break as other systems have done.

“They have to take responsibility for making the decisions of operating in the bounds of the law,” said Justin Hartings, a school board member from Washington County.

The city has closed for an average of five days a year for each of the last several school years, but only had a plan in place to make up three days for bad weather closures, Hartings said.

“They could have converted professional development days,” said Hartings, referring to days when the teachers get additional training while students aren’t in school.

A spokesperson for Hogan did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

State board members said requests to waive the 180-day requirement should be a last resort for school systems in extraordinary weather events.

“At this point no decision has been made following the state board’s denial,” said Edie House, a city school system spokesman.

House said the school system is going to have to “assess the situation and come up with a new plan.”

If the school system decided immediately to open on March 26, school leaders could ask for a vote of the board before that date.

City schools have been closed because of bad weather on four days this year — Jan. 4, 5, 17 and March 2. School officials had identified only three days when schools were scheduled to be closed that schools could open to make up for lost days. Those are March 16, April 2 and June 15.

One more school day must now be added to the calendar.

A bill before the Maryland legislature would extend the school year to the third Friday in June. The quandary some school systems find themselves in “highlights the importance” of that bill, said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County school system.

This year, the third Friday is June 15, but in 2019 it would be June 21, giving school systems more flexibility.

Caroline, Dorchester, St. Mary's, Talbot and Wicomico counties, along with the city, all received waivers to go to school on Presidents’ Day, if they needed to use it to offset days the systems were closed. St. Mary's also received a waiver to have classes Easter Monday.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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