King's Dominion: County fights late school start


The most wonderful time of the year for parents eager to shoo their young out of the nest and back to school may have to wait until September. What critics dubbed the "King's Dominion law" may soon rear its head– right into local school calendars.

Albemarle and Charlottesville once dutifully followed the law by starting school after Labor Day. Then came the snow-riffic winter of 1995-96.

After back-to-back two-foot-plus snows kept Albemarle schools closed for 13 days, the county won a waiver of the law, which since 1986 has decreed that schools must wait until after Labor Day to open (to keep teen workers at the state's amusement parks).

Here's how the weather waiver works. If a school system misses an average of eight days in five of 10 years, the district can request permission to start school before Labor Day. For 10 years, those 13 snow days during the winter of '95-'96 have weighted the county's average.

"We're in trouble this year," says School Board member Brian Wheeler. "'95-'96 is dropping off. That gave us the average."

Losing Albemarle's weather waiver could also set back Charlottesville schools because of joint efforts such as the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center [CATEC] and Piedmont Regional Education Program [PREP].

"Several years back, both boards wanted the same calendar because we share programs like CATEC and PREP," says Bobby Thompson, Charlottesville interim superintendent.

"We've always missed fewer days in the past than the county," says Thompson. "We've always gotten the waiver because of shared programs."

Statewide, 79 of Virginia's 132 districts use the waiver to get classes going before Labor Day.

This year so far, Albemarle has had just four snow days– not enough to keep its average high enough for the waiver. So Albemarle has come up with an alternate waiver request.

Just as Charlottesville has piggybacked onto Albemarle's snowier roads to get an August start, Albemarle is looking to a neighbor for help. County officials have decided to cite a special education program that's also used by Nelson County, a place that misses so many days it doesn't have to make them up.

"Gosh, Nelson in the past would be going to school in July," says Thompson, "if they had to make up those days."

There's a catch to requesting the shared programs waiver. At least one student has to use the special education program at every Albemarle school.

"If we find we're one school short, that would be a problem," says Wheeler.

So both local public school boards have prepared two calendars for the 2006-07 school year: one starting two weeks before Labor Day on August 21, and one that starts a day after the big weekend on September 5.

Parents trying to schedule vacations won't know until March 22, when the application goes before the state School Board for approval, whether Albemarle gets its waiver.

"This is an area where local government should make its own decision," Wheeler says. "Richmond's role should be setting the minimum number of days."

In fact, a bill to kill the King's Dominion law failed this year.

So why not just start school after Labor Day? Teacher workdays and spring break, say school officials.

"We've found we like to spread in-service and work days throughout the year for teachers," explains Diane Behrens, Albemarle executive director of support services. "And parents want a guaranteed spring break. If we started after Labor Day, we'd have to compromise what we think should be instructional planning days and vacations to get school out in June."

"I think people in Albemarle are used to us starting earlier," says Wheeler. "Mostly they just want to know when that day is."

But not all parents are thrilled with a pre-Labor Day start. Some recall when you could get a discounted beach house in states that started school earlier.

"As a parent," says Martha Redinger, "I think summer is family time. I'm always leery of attempts to shorten summer time."

She says August is prime time for many family vacations, and as the start times get earlier, people get more upset. In some states– including North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida– schools start in early August– and in a few cases, late July.

One Miami woman, Sherry Sturner, was so unhappy about an August 9 start date that she founded a group called "Save our Summers." The group is trying to change Florida state law to prohibit schools from starting more than seven days before Labor Day, according to School Board News.

"Just keep it late August," advises Redinger.

Jenny Gardiner, a parent with children at Monticello High and the Peabody School, has mixed feelings about the start date. "Kids are ready to go back by the end of August," she says. "But it hastens the grind. I kind of have the mindset of a 14-year-old."

The earlier August start date "messes up our vacation plans a lot," she says. "I think it would be nice if all the schools in this town got on the same page."

Only four snow days this year kicks Albemarle's average of eight that are needed to start school before Labor Day. The county will try Plan B.