By MATT MILNER
---- — OTTUMWA — The question, on the surface, is pretty simple: When should Iowa school districts be allowed to start classes?
In reality, it's more complex. How long students must be in class helps define when school starts, both in terms of getting out in time to allow for a decent summer break and getting back before everything is forgotten. And when class starts helps define when it ends.
A new proposal before the Iowa State Board of Education would allow districts to define the academic year as either 180 days of classroom instruction or as 1,080 hours. But other details, including the process for establishing the start of the school year, are causing concern.
The proposed rules would require schools to start no earlier than the week that includes Sept. 1. Two waiver processes would be available for districts that want to start earlier. For those who want to start up to seven days earlier, the process is expedited. More than that, and the district would be required to provide evidence that includes specific evidence of harm to the educational process.
Cardinal Superintendent Joel Pedersen is not prepared to dismiss the proposal, but neither is he ready to embrace it.
“I just really need more time to process it,” he said.
Pedersen's preference is for local control. He doesn't see how students gain from having a one-size-fits-all decision made by people who aren't part of the local districts that must adjust. But he's sympathetic to the idea that there need to be some guidelines in place.
For Cardinal, the start time is usually tied to the state fair. The district usually starts midweek during the week after the fair wraps up. This year, the fair ends August 18 and the district begins classes two days later.
That's right at the edge of when the new proposal would allow districts to start classes. Cardinal would need a seven-day waiver for it, which it has sought in the past, but not the longer waiver with the more stringent requirements.
It's that second set of requirements that raises red flags for Ottumwa's superintendent. Davis Eidahl called the proposals “a step in the wrong direction.”
“I think it's going beyond the Iowa Department of Education's authority,” he said.
Like Pedersen, Eidahl said the issue of local control is critical for school districts. The ability to set calendars that make sense for the residents isn't something the state can replicate.
Eidahl pointed to Mount Pleasant, which breaks for the Old Thresher's Reunion, as an example of why local school boards should maintain their primacy. And he thinks districts that see significant percentages of their graduates move on to postsecondary education should have some flexibility to align their calendars with those of colleges and universities.
“You get a better day of concentration in late August than in late June,” Eidahl said. “I just go back to allowing the schools and communities to have more influence with their calendars.”
Oskaloosa Superintendent Russ Rieter said some districts would benefit from steering clear of the Iowa State Fair, but not more than 10 or 15 and primarily those close to the fair site in Des Moines. He doesn't care for the state imposing a schedule on the other districts.
"I'm still just a little frustrated that they're bringing this up again, and again, and again," he said.
And Reiter believes the state is missing an element for most districts since they can't finish before Memorial Day, as he would prefer, if they start as late as the proposal mandates.
Eidahl thinks the proposed changes will pass, and when they do, he expects Ottumwa will gather the information needed to seek a waiver for an earlier start to the year.
The proposal will take effect in the 2014-15 school year if it passes.