Early start date worked in Kanawha's favor in water crisis

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In some ways, Kanawha County students are better off than those in other counties forced to close schools due to last week's chemical spill, county officials say.

This was the first year the calendar ended the semester and wrapped up finals before students left for Christmas break, allowing students a fresh start and less catch-up, school board members said at a meeting Thursday.

Although opponents spoke out against this year's early Aug. 9 start date, supporters said it would be better for students -- and for families -- if they didn't have to study for finals while they were on break.

Now, after a coal-cleaning chemical leaked into the Elk River last week and forced schools in nine counties to close -- putting Kanawha County students out for six days, including today school board members are thankful they made the controversial decision for the early start date.

"What really worked out well was that we're starting a new semester. Other superintendents are all worried. They still haven't had their finals yet. We're starting a new semester so we can start with new material," Duerring said. "Quite frankly, it worked out really well this year because of this [water situation.]"

But the calendar controversy isn't over.

The school board is now essentially choosing between an early start date and an earlier start date: Aug. 11 or Aug. 19. Historically, schools in the area have opened in late August, with the exception of this school year.

The board faced criticisms with its early start date this year, with parents concerned about faulty air-conditioning systems in schools in even hotter early August temperatures.

But if the board votes for Aug. 19, it means school employees will miss out on a paycheck.

The issue is with requirements of the Wage Payment and Collection Act, officials said. School employees wouldn't be paid less, but would have to go a pay period without receiving a check.

"So we're in the position of starting on Aug. 11 or hurting the people," school board President Pete Thaw said. "I think that's too early but I sure don't want to hurt our employees. So it's damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Duerring said the decision was out of the school system's hands and has to do with payroll protocol. 

"The problem is when we changed the calendar to start early, none of us knew this snafu would happen. We were unaware of it. We really created this situation to begin with," school board member Jim Crawford said. "But nobody said anything last fall when they got two paychecks in one pay period."

Although Thursday served as a now-required public hearing concerning school calendars, mandated as part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's comprehensive education bill introduced last year, no members of the public signed up to weigh in on the calendar.

State Department of Education officials say the new rules related to school calendars are meant to hold districts more accountable for a minimum of 180 days of instruction, while at the same time give local boards more control over their calendars.

The new statewide calendar bill also nixes early-outs and changes professional development schedules for teachers, scheduling things like faculty senate days only during non-instructional time, said Elena Gayton, assistant county superintendent of instruction.

"Every day has to be made up -- every snow day, every bad water day, everything for next year. Not necessarily this year," Gayton said. "In counties that miss 20 days of school due to bad weather or whatever reason, they could actually be required to attend school through the end of June. It's up to the local superintendents to determine [that]. Let's hope that wouldn't happen here."

Both calendar options include a week-long Thanksgiving break and end the first semester prior to Christmas break.

The Aug. 11 option ends the school year for students on June 3. The Aug. 19 option ends May 29.

The school board will revisit next year's school calendar decision at its Feb. 20 meeting.