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School Notes: New bill would let school boards decide school start, end dates

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By Emma Kerr

More than two years after Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order requiring Maryland public schools to start after Labor Day, a new bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) would leave the calendar decision up to county school boards.

A second bill, sponsored by Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery), clarifies that a county school board may extend the length of the school year for any reason up to five days beyond June 15 without approval from the state board or any entity.

Hogan’s 2016 order was met with a range of community responses in Frederick County, with representatives from the county lamenting their loss of autonomy in the decision.

“All boards of education want to establish their own parameters,” said Frederick County Board of Education member Mike Bunitsky, who sits on the calendar committee. “Every board in every [Local Education Agency] across the state would like to set their own calendar.”

But Hogan’s order took away the flexibility provided to county school boards in creating their calendars by state guidelines established in COMAR, Bunitsky said.

The calendar committee, made up of Frederick County Public Schools representatives and community members, meets each year to set the coming school year’s calendar. Schools must meet 180 days each year for a minimum of 1,080 school hours. Controversial calendar issues in the past have included concerns over respecting a range of religious holidays, preparing for unexpected snow days and the decision not to close schools on Fair Day, traditionally a day off so families can spend time at The Great Frederick Fair.

Under Hogan’s order, Bunitsky said it’s been a tight squeeze to set the calendar. Three or four days of leeway can make a big difference from the calendar committee’s perspective, he said, but community response to the executive order has been stronger than expected.

“The governor’s executive order has been very popular,” Bunitsky said. “[Parents] love the time with their children in the summer. But there are some who after that first year emailed that it was too long and it was expensive for child care or for camps. It has people … on both sides. I was kind of surprised by how many people voiced their opinions about it.”

The school board still has to set some dates for the 2019-2020 school year calendar, but it has voted to approve a Sept. 3 start date.

Both bills are scheduled for committee hearings on Jan. 30. The Senate bill sponsored by King is also cross-listed in the House, where it is sponsored by Delegate Mark Chang (D-Anne Arundel) and has bipartisan support.

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