On Wednesday night, the Board of Education voted to reduce the school calendar for this year by three days to make up for the unexpectedly large number of school cancellations the district has taken this winter. This shortens the school year from 183 to 180 days, the minimum number required by state law.
Even with the three days eliminated from next week’s February Break, the district was eight days beyond the end of the school year. “As of this point, the school year ends on June 30,” said Superintendent William D. Guzman before the board made its decision. “The approach I am recommending to the Board is let’s do this in a staggered way. That way we can get as much information out to as many people when have information,” he said.
On Feb. 3, the board unanimously voted to shorten February Break for Tolland schools to help make up for the 10 snow days already taken this year. Students were originally scheduled to have all of next week off for vacation. Instead, they will only have Feb. 21 and Feb. 22 as holidays. School will be back in session on Wednesday, Feb. 23.
And what if there are more snow days, with officially four more weeks of winter ahead?
“At some point, we will look at shortening April vacation,” said Guzman.
Board member Judith Grabowicz said she would like to see what was happening with April break before deciding whether to shorten the school year. She expressed concerns with how doing the latter would affect teachers' contracts.
“Our policy is to take away from April first,” she said. “Why are we not doing that first before we shorten the school year?”
Guzman explained that 92 percent of the student body is scheduled to be in school Feb. 23-25, based on the scheduled absence notices the principals have received from parents. The average attendance rate for students this school year is 96 percent, he said.
Eighty percent of the teaching staff will be in attendance next week. A survey was given to the approximately 256 teachers in the district about their April vacation plans. “A bigger percentage of teachers were not going to be here in April,” said Guzman.
Board member Karen Bresciano said that she believed a teacher’s contract states that make up days for school cancellations will be taken out of April vacation first. “Why isn’t 100 percent of the teachers going to be there?”
Chairperson Robert Pagoni said that April vacation is an established one on the calendar.
“After the seventh [snow] day, you start taking away days,” said Guzman. “Out of April, we should be taking away that Monday. If we have another snow day, we take away that Tuesday.” He said the Friday of April vacation is a contractual holiday.
When asked how shortening the school year would affect teacher contracts and their pay, Guzman said that preliminary discussions suggested that those three extra days would be made up as work days, in the form of professional development or curriculum writing. “These will be iron-clad, and there will be accountability for those days with their principals,” he said.
Guzman said that the days might be taken at the end of the year or on Wednesdays after school, but some of those preliminary discussions were underway. “As of now, our school year ends on June 30,” he said.
He has spoken with the lead attorney for the Connecticut State Department of Education, who said the State Board of Education is not deviating from previous years in its process of dealing with days lost from school cancellations. “The State Board will want to make sure you’ve exhausted all possibilities to make up those days,” Guzman said. “We’re not anywhere near those yet.”
Current law allows the State Board of Education to authorize shortening a school district’s year due to “unavoidable emergency,” with no specific reference to weather. Inclement weather is mentioned only with regard to scheduling of make-up days, stating that they cannot be held on weekend days.
The superintendent said he has heard that the state legislature may get involved as so many school districts are struggling with the same issue this year. “[If this does happen], I’m assuming there will be a blanket waiver [to reduce the number of school days] for school districts across the state,” he said.
On Friday, Jan. 18, State Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, who serves Ashford, Tolland and Willington in the 53rd Assembly District, released a statement that he has asked Department of Education Commissioner George Coleman to allow school districts seeking a waiver to state law requiring a minimum of 180 school days have weather-related closings factored in when considering their applications.
“Due to these highly unusual circumstances, I believe this winter’s wrath of mother nature should be acknowledged as a legitimate factor when considering district applications for a waiver of the 180 minimum school days statute,” said Hurlburt.
He said that even with an abbreviated February Break and potential time taken away from April vacation, Tolland will still struggle to complete a 180 day school year prior to June 30 after 11 snow days to date.
The Tolland Board of Education next meets on March 9. Board member Steve Clark asked if the board postponed a decision on shortening the school year until then, would the members have a better handle on what they were dealing with, in regards to any future snow days?
Guzman said the board could delay the vote, but many parents have called wanting to know when the last day of school is going to be, for planning purposes. He suggested a reduction of days first, though he said, “the board can certainly decide to take away from April vacation first.”
Grabowicz and Clark both expressed desires to wait until the next meeting. However, when put to a vote, there were no oppositions. Grabowicz abstained.
Shortening the school year will bring the end of the school year back to June 27.