Fredericksburg students likely will head back to school in August next year.

The School Board voted 5–1 Monday to ask the State Board of Education for a waiver to start either Aug. 12 or 19 next year instead of waiting until the day after Labor Day. Spotsylvania County schools started before Labor Day for the first time this school year, and Stafford County voted in June to kick off the first day of school next year on Aug. 12.

“We wouldn’t know officially until March if the waiver has been approved,” said Superintendent David Melton at a School Board meeting last week. “I highly doubt that the state would not approve it since every one of the surrounding counties is [starting before Labor Day].”

Stafford’s decision, combined with Spotsylvania County schools’ pre-Labor Day start, prompted Fredericksburg’s School Board to consider switching to an earlier date. It conducted a survey last month to get feedback from students, staff and parents. Of the more than 570 responses, about 300 disagreed with making the switch, 205 agreed and the rest were neutral.

School Board member Kathleen Pomeroy pointed out that more teachers who responded were in favor of an earlier start while more parents wanted to keep the current start date. All the students said they wanted to go back after Labor Day, added School Board member Jannan Holmes.

School Board Chairwoman Malvina Kay, who voted against applying for the waiver, said that she was concerned about how a pre-Labor Day start would benefit students.

“What are we not getting by starting after Labor Day that everyone else is getting?” she said.

Jon Russ, the school system’s chief administrative officer, said that about 70 percent of the school system’s total staff does not live in the city, and a number of teachers have school-age children. They might want to leave for a school system with the same start time as their children.

Melton added that starting after Labor Day also causes problems with hiring because other school systems in the region—including Caroline, Culpeper and King George—will be offering contracts in June while city schools are still in session.

“Why can’t we offer contracts earlier?” Kay said.

Melton said that they can, but they might not know which positions would be vacant at that point. Russ added that principals are so busy the last three weeks of school that they would be hard-pressed to find time to interview candidates.

“As competitive as it is right now, with the shortage of teachers we have, teachers, they’re taking the first or second job they’re offered,” Russ said. “Our fear is that they’re going to be offered while we’re still in school for this school year.”

Melton said that the city school system also would be a month behind other nearby school systems in finding “suitable replacements” if teachers who accept contracts decide to use the July 1–15 window to back out without penalty. He said that the city’s schools have lost some teachers who went to a school division with an earlier start date.

“Their kids. That’s the biggest issue,” he said.

School Board member Jarvis Bailey said that many people taking the survey didn’t take into consideration such things as when athletes have to play, what regional programs students might be part of and where staff lives.

“Also, starting after Labor Day is arbitrary,” he said. “What we have to do is make a prudent decision for the division.”

Holmes said that said it was hard to figure out what would be best for the students because they’ll have to ride on hot buses if school starts in August, but they will get to take midterms before holiday vacation and will have longer to prepare for standardized tests.

She asked if school systems with pre-Labor Day starts get better scores. Melton said that there is no empirical evidence that they do.

He said that the school system’s calendar committee is working on two calendars for next year, both of which will have a fall semester that ends before winter break. He said that he will get drafts to the School Board as soon as they’re available, instead of waiting to present them in March for review.

“People need time to plan,” Holmes said.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

cjett@freelancestar.com

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