W.Va. school board denies all make-up-day forgiveness requests

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W.Va. school board denies all make-up-day forgiveness requests
By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer, Charleston Gazette 
The West Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday denied requests by all 27 school districts that applied for make-up-day forgiveness, meaning they’ll have to further extend their last days of school to meet the new requirement this year for 180 separate instructional days.

Many districts missed relatively high numbers of days this school year because of a harsh winter and flooding — Calhoun County missed 19.

Calhoun, according to information provided by board attorney Mary Catherine Funk, would have been able to end school on June 8, had the board approved the district’s request for forgiveness of six make-up days. It will now have to wait until June 16.

McDowell County could have gotten out June 15; now it’ll let out June 24. Raleigh County asked to get out June 12; now it will be June 22. Nicholas County asked to get it out June 9; now it will be June 17. Kanawha and Putnam counties didn’t request waivers.

All districts — if they miss no more days — should be able to end school by June 25, Funk said.

However, county school boards might now be required to make more unpopular decisions to meet the 180-day requirement. Raleigh — and perhaps other counties — already had canceled its one-week spring break before the state school board denied its waiver request.

Funk said all 27 districts requested to use accrued instructional time to count for entire days. Those minutes, which schools build up over time by keeping students in class longer each day than the state-set minimum daily instructional time, normally can be used only to make up delays and early dismissals.

She told board members that using the time to make up whole days would be illegal under a state law that took effect this school year with Senate Bill 359, which passed in 2013 and mandated 180 separate instructional days. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had backed SB359 and his spokesman, Chris Stadelman, recently said the governor had spoken with state schools Superintendent Michael Martirano about his wish that the strict 180-separate-days requirement remain.

Funk’s legal advice differed from West Virginia Department of Education general counsel Heather Hutchens’ statements at the March 11 state school board meeting — when board members approved offering a waiver process. Hutchens said the accrued time could be used to forgive entire days and also said the waivers could allow Martirano to excuse days missed during governor-declared states of emergency.

Those were the exemptions planned by Senate Bill 537, which sought to break free from the 180-day requirement. Versions of the bill passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously this session, but legislators failed on the last night of the session to reconcile amendments the House of Delegates had made.

Senate Majority Whip Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, was lead sponsor of SB537 and said he plans to push to pass the bill again next session.

At the March 11 meeting — three days before the end of the session — Hutchens suggested approving the waiver process, in case the bill did not pass. She said SB537 would “firm up” the legal authority to drop below the 180-separate-instructional-days requirement, but if it didn’t pass, she argued that there was still enough “wiggle room in the statute” to allow the exemptions anyway.

That was not the opinion of board members Wednesday, as they shot down the districts’ requests.

Board member Lloyd Jackson noted that Tomblin previously had pointed out that students were averaging only 170 days of instruction per year before SB359.

“You say, well could we waive this?” Jackson said. “I think the only, conceivable way we could do that is to waive the very word the statute was intended to create: separate — and I just believe that to be totally contrary to what was intended in the law.”

Under the waiver process, districts could have asked to make up school on weekends and holidays, to let students out earlier this summer, but none did.

Additionally on Wednesday, Martirano said he would not forgive make-up days based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency categorizing Winter Storm Thor’s impact on 29 counties as a “federal disaster.” He said he possibly could have forgiven days missed in these counties from March 3-6.

Stadelman previously told the Gazette that Martirano isn’t allowed to forgive such days anyway — the federal disaster declaration must come from the president of the United States, to allow the state schools superintendent to waive related make-up days, Stadelman said.

Most states require 180 days of instruction, but research casts doubt on whether that number actually matters or not — often finding that positive effects of more instructional time were small and dependent on specific additional factors. When asked why the push for 180 separate days of instruction when there’s discrepancy among research, Martirano said he disagrees “completely” with that notion, citing studies of the KIPP national charter school network and the negative impact of summer breaks on learning.

“I’m a strong believer in the more time a young person is in school, the more time they’re in front of their teachers, the better off they’re going to be in terms of instructional knowledge and retention of information,” he said.

A 2014 study authored by Daniel Long, a former assistant sociology professor at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut — on the differences in instructional time among countries — found “no effect of the length of the school year on academic achievement.”

A 2012 study by Hee Kyung Hong, of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, found that, while the “number of full instructional days in a year was significantly related to mathematics and science achievement in developed countries across the years . . . the strength of the association between the two variables was low indicating that instructional time is a weak predictor of student performance.

“More importantly, the effective use of time spent on learning tasks may be a more accurate indicator of student performance,” the author suggested.