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Give schools more say over snow days

It didn’t take many snowflakes to fall this week before parents of public schoolchildren began asking the question that has long troubled Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials: How are we going to make up these snow days?

After three more weekdays of kids sledding instead of studying, CMS has run out of easy ways and available days to fulfill the state’s requirement that children go to school 185 days a year. As of Friday, CMS says that families will have to send their kids to school the first two days of spring break, April 14 and 15.

Parents, however, are unhappy with being faced with the choice of missing planned vacations or skipping school days. Officials say they’ll consider alternatives, but those also aren’t great. CMS could make up the snow days on Saturdays, but that would cut into recreational activities and family time. Another option – keeping kids at school for extended hours – could interfere with after-school activities, plus it would add to an already long elementary school day.

The lack of good choices points to a larger problem with the school calendar: Local districts have little say about it. Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, the state required that districts begin school no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and finish no later the Friday closest to June 11. Add in teacher work day mandates, and school districts have little flexibility should Mother Nature deliver an extra helping of weather events.

Why handcuff districts this way? It’s not a partisan issue. It’s a money issue. “It’s the coastal part of North Carolina versus everyone else,” Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg told the editorial board this week.

Legislators from the coast want to protect the tourism industry in their districts by keeping as much of the summer available for vacations as possible. Also, a handful of legislators own summer camps, Cotham said, and they likewise want as many weeks available as possible for N.C. children to attend.

That’s not nearly a good enough reason to put counties across the state in a scheduling bind. Some, including Mecklenburg, have semi-regular trouble with makeup days. For some, like the mountain counties, it’s a frequent issue.

What would Mecklenburg do with the flexibility the state currently doesn’t give it? One option, CMS school board member Eric Davis told the editorial board, would be to start the school year at least a week early. This year, that would have given CMS an extra school week to work with for makeup days instead of squeezing families’ spring breaks or Saturdays.

Starting earlier also would allow the second quarter of the school year to finish before the holiday break instead of two weeks after children return to classes, David said. That continuity would be helpful to both students and teachers.

Districts should have that option. Legislators like to talk about the value of local government control, yet seem to forget that principle when their own interests are involved. They should take another look at the school calendar law and put control where it belongs, with local districts. Let families enjoy the snow without worrying about having to pay for it later.

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