2011-10-27 / Local & State

State Says No To Shorter School Year

By Monica von Dobeneck

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Schools had barely opened in September when severe weather closed them for several days, leaving school officials to wonder what they will do when the snows come.

Many districts have asked the state to waive the mandate of 180 days of instruction because of the unusual cancellations so early in the year, but the Department of Education has denied them.

It's too early to make an exception, department spokesman Tim Eller said.

“We still hope schools can complete their 180 days by the June 30 deadline,” he said.

Most schools have makeup days built into their calendars, he said. It is possible they won't need snow days.

Depending on the winter weather, “We could look at it again,” he said.

The state school code also requires at least 900 hours of instruction for elementary students and 990 hours for secondary students. Schools that don’t abide by the rule give up state subsidies.

“The philosophy is, the more time students spend in class, the better their education,” Eller said.

The Middletown Area School District, which canceled school Sept. 8, 9, 12 and 13 because of flooding from Tropical Storm Lee, had applied for a waiver because “a waiver would give us some time knowing we're still facing the winter,” Superintendent Richard Weinstein said.

Middletown was particularly hard hit when the Swatara Creek overflowed its banks. Not only was travel impossible, but the borough's wells were damaged, causing a water shortage, and the high school boiler room flooded, causing mechanical failures, Weinstein said.

The district has shortened Thanksgiving vacation by adding Nov. 23 and 28 as school days. It has three snow makeup days built in but will hang on to them until school officials see how bad the winter is.

The Derry Twp. School District expected to be denied a waiver for the Sept. 8 and 9 cancellations because neighboring districts had been notified, spokesman Dan Tredinnick said. The district will use makeup days Jan. 2 and Feb. 20.

Kindergarten and firstgrade students in the Early Childhood Center lost an additional four days because of damage to their school’s foundation from the flooding. Tredinnick said the district most likely will not try to make those up. The district gets no state subsidy for kindergarten, and the cost to bring in first-grade teachers and provide transportation for that grade would probably exceed whatever the district would receive in state subsidies.

Dauphin County Technical School was denied waivers for Tropical Storm Lee but did get waivers when a severe lightning storm the next week damaged the school's transformers and cut off power Sept. 15 and 16.

School spokeswoman Madeleine Bowman said that was probably because the technical school draws students from six school districts that did not need to cancel school those days. Figuring out logistics for getting students to the technical school for makeup days would be an undue burden on the districts, she said.

“We asked for waivers because these were issues beyond our control,” she said. “We absolutely value education, but safety comes first.”

Weinstein said he could think of only one time in his 30 years in education when the state let school districts slide on the 180- day rule. That was in the early 1990s, when a severe winter caused many cancellations. The state allowed districts to use the minimum number of hours instead of days at that time, he said, but it took an act of the Legislature.

“We added minutes to each day, shortened vacations and extended the school year,” he said. “If we have a bad winter, there is a chance (the Department of Education) will look at this again.”

Several school officials joked that they need a new name for snow days. Bowman suggested “flood, hurricane, fire and pestilence days.”

For now, school officials are hoping for mild winter weather.

“I hope we have a beautiful, sunny and dry winter,” Bowman said.

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