Parents of students enrolled in Fredericksburg’s public school system might want to postpone making summer vacation plans.
The School Board has run into a snag in its efforts to start classes either Aug. 12 or 19 next year instead of waiting until after Labor Day. The school system doesn’t qualify for a waiver due to the way state requirements are written.
School officials thought that the city could get a waiver that allows a school system to start before Labor Day if it is “entirely surrounded by a school division with a pre-Labor Day opening.”
Eight Virginia cities, including Harrisonburg and Waynesboro, qualify because they’re located in the middle of a county. Fredericksburg, however, is surrounded by two counties: Spotsylvania, which started opening in August this year, and Stafford, which will open in August in 2019.
Jon Russ, the school system’s chief administrative officer, said that he’s talked with people at the Virginia Department of Education several times to see if Fredericksburg could still qualify. He said he was told that the only way that could happen would be for the General Assembly to pass legislation amending the wording.
“I understand what they’re saying. That doesn’t mean that I agree that we’re not surrounded,” he said.
City Council members, who were told of the problem during a work session Tuesday, said they would press legislators to change the wording. Del. Bob Thomas, R-Stafford, in response to a question by The Free Lance–Star, said Thursday that he would be happy to present a bill to change the waiver if the School Board asked.
Thomas said he would get in touch with legislative services to get the exact wording needed.
Fredericksburg school officials have been eyeing a switch to an earlier start since Spotsylvania and Stafford announced that they planned to start classes in August. The officials are mainly concerned about their ability to attract and retain teachers.
Currently, the city’s schools end classes in June while other school systems in the region—including Caroline, Culpeper and King George counties—end in May. That means city school administrators can’t start hiring until a month after their counterparts in surrounding school systems because they might not know which positions would be vacant.
In addition, about 70 percent of Fredericksburg’s school system’s total staff doesn’t 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 sons and daughters.
“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 told the School Board at its Nov. 5 meeting. “Our fear is that they’re going to be offered while we’re still in school for this school year.”
Superintendent David Melton added that Fredericksburg’s school system also would be a month behind those nearby when it tries to find suitable replacements if teachers who accept contracts decide to use the July 1–15 window to back out without penalty. He said the city’s schools have lost some teachers who went to a school division with an earlier start date.
Students, staff and parents were surveyed in October to get feedback on opening schools before Labor Day. Of the more than 570 responses, about 300 disagreed with making the switch, 205 agreed and the rest were neutral.
After much discussion, the School Board voted 5–1 at the Nov. 5 meeting to ask the State Board of Education for a waiver to start either Aug. 12 or 19 next year. At the time, Melton told board members that he expected the state to approve it because all the surrounding school systems will be starting classes before Labor Day next year.
Russ said in a phone interview Wednesday that the state Department of Education has a list on its website, doe.virginia.gov, of all the schools that qualify for one of the four possible waivers to the so-called Kings Dominion rule, which requires public schools to start after Labor Day. It’s up to those school systems to decide if they want to use it.
Besides the one Fredericksburg is seeking, school systems can get a waiver if they are closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failures, or other emergency situations; or if they provide instructional programs in partnership with another school division that already qualifies for a waiver. Those are the two most frequently used exceptions.
The fourth waiver is for school divisions that provide students with an experimental or innovative program—including instructional programs offered on a year-round basis—that requires an earlier opening date. The program also has to be approved by the state.
Only five are listed as meeting that qualification. They include Alexandria, Arlington County and Richmond.
“We’re not even on the list,” Russ said. “It’s not like you apply. It’s automatic.”
Fredericksburg’s School Board will get an update on a possible pre-Labor Day opening at its regular monthly meeting Monday, as well as drafts of two proposed school calendars for 2019-20. The final version won’t be voted on until a later date.
School Board member Elizabeth Rehm said she’s frustrated by the waiver situation. She said the board made the difficult decision to open in August, and can’t understand why it makes a difference if the city is surrounded by one locality with a pre-Labor Day opening or two.
“They’re all starting at the same time,” she said. “It’s difficult for families when you’re planning this to be notified that we’re going to try to do this and have the state not allow it because of wording.”