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Arlington school system faces a calendar conondrum

Staff wants regional approach to start/end dates and holidays, but parents and staff are not on board

Despite concerns from some parents and staff that adopting a one-size-fits-all-of-Northern-Virginia approach to setting future school-year calendars, a majority of Arlington School Board members seem comfortable going down that route.

But other board members with questions are not likely to go down without a fight before planned adoption of the new policy in September.

The biggest battle may be over the proposal that Arlington align itself with other jurisdictions that are now starting the school year two weeks before Labor Day. Arlington’s school year in recent years has started one week before, and many respondents to an online survey conducted by the school system were not in favor of starting earlier than that.

“We have clear signals from our community,” said School Board member Mary Kadera, who pressed staff to back up, before a final vote was taken, its assertions that aligning the start dates among all jurisdictions would somehow be a net plus to Arlington.

Paraphrasing, perhaps unwittingly, what those with long memories of Arlington governance remember as the “Eisenberg principle” (after inquisitive former County Board member Albert Eisenberg), Kadera asked staff to come up with an answer to a seminal question: “What are we trying to solve?”

“If we’re going to be doing something that runs counter to the feedback we’ve gotten, we . . . need to have a clear and compelling reason,” she said.

School Board member Reid Goldstein, who with Kadera has tended to push back more on staff proposals than their colleagues, asked what benefit it would be to align with Northern Virginia while not working to get the entire Washington region to agree on a single schedule.

Steven Marku, the county school system’s director of policy and legislative affairs, said differing laws that govern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia would make that a challenge.

“It wasn’t practical,” Marku said, while acknowledging that “it would be nicer if there were a way to do that.”

Absent  a truly regionwide approach, the school boards of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties and the cities of Falls Church and Fairfax are being asked by their respective staffs to agree to overall guidelines for the start and end of each school year, as well as the length and placement of winter and spring breaks and various holidays.

“We’ve been working on this all year, trying to get our calendar in alignment with neighboring school jurisdictions,” Marku said.

The Arlington school system has received more than 450 responses to its springtime initial proposal and subsequent refinements, about half from parents – many of them not happy with starting school closer to the middle of August than the end of it.

Superintendent Francisco Durán said he appreciated all those who took the time to respond. School Board member Bethany Sutton, however, seemed to shrug off the concerns voiced by some.

“This is a very, very small number of people weighing in – not necessarily representing the full scope and voice of our community,” she said. “At a certain point, we do have to make some choices.”

Sutton and fellow board members David Priddy and chair Cristina Diaz-Torres tend to align themselves with staff recommendations more than Goldstein and Kadera, so it would seem a good bet that the measure will pass when it comes up for a final vote.

It’s something of a receding memory, but for a generation or more starting in the 1970s, all school districts across Virginia – in theory at least – were required by the General Assembly to delay the opening of the school year until after Labor Day. The regulation became known as the “Kings Dominion Rule” and was based on the theory that tourist attractions like theme parks would be hurt if school-age employees had to quit before the all-important holiday weekend.

(The name stuck even though Kings Dominion never strongly advocated for the position.)

Despite the rule, school districts across the commonwealth could – and often did – request waivers. Before it was rescinded by the General Assembly, Arlington remained one of a few localities still under the edict.

State law requires local school systems to schedule a minimum of 990 hours of educational time per school year, which usually equates to 180 days of instruction. Under the regional proposal being floated, superintendents would have the ability to shorten the end of the school year if fewer inclement-weather days were used than were built into the schedule. Typically there are six or seven buffer days included on top of the required instructional time.

Whether there would be a single decision made on closing for inclement weather – and by whom – or whether it would be left to individual jurisdictions also might become a topic of discussion at the mid-September meeting when the issue will be decided.