SNOW MAKE UP DAYS, 2015: MORE THAN AN INCONVENIENCE, THIS DECISION IS A BREACH OF CONTRACT

Dear members of the Wake County Public School Board,

I’m writing to you as an alum, an employee, and a parent of a current student in the Wake County Public School System. I have experienced Wake County Public Schools from all angles and know that this is a superior school district.  The schools in our district are wonderful places to learn, work, and send our children. I appreciate that this school board has been forced to make difficult decisions lately, and that the challenge of scheduling make up days that were agreeable to students, staff, and parents, but which still preserved instructional integrity was a formidable task.  I understand that in situations like these, making everyone happy is impossible, and that the NC calendar laws forcing a late start to the school year, semesters that end three weeks after the winter break, and a consequential disconnect between testing windows and the end of the school year adds its own complications.   Nonetheless, while I understand the challenges posed by the recent winter weather, I do not understand the decisions made by the school board with respect to the make up days determined, specifically the decision to disregard the make up days which were ostensibly voted on and explicitly stated on the district’s 2014-2015 traditional calendar in favor of days that are disruptive to the financial and familial obligations of students, parents, and employees.

Since the Board meeting on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, the make up days proposed by this school board have been completely nonsensical. Tuesday’s questionable proposal to schedule Good Friday and two Saturdays as make up days escalated to today’s OUTRAGEOUS decision to designate the first three days of Spring Break as make up dates.  Many reasons contribute to the outrage expressed this week by students, parents, and teachers alike on social media.  These include, but are not limited to:

1.  The district’s announcement on Tuesday, March 3rd that Spring Break would not be taken away, which undoubtedly prompted not only non-refundable vacation plans being made, but also a sense of security in making plans for those dates.

2.  The scant two week notice that plans have to be changed, travel cancelled or modified, money lost, or arrangements made with teachers and principals regarding make up work for days which earlier in the week were guaranteed as “safe.”

3.  The fact that the district required teachers to go to work during the snow days or “take vacation time,” only to now have vacation time taken away and no announced plans for how the extra work time and lost vacation will be compensated. In short, this decision puts WCPSS in debt to its employees.

4.  The reality that most families (including teachers) will understandably opt to go ahead with their Spring break travel, thereby guaranteeing mass absenteeism for both students AND teachers, compromising the “instructional integrity” that this choice of days is supposed to preserve.

As far as I’m concerned, and based on the complaints I’ve heard from other students, parents, and employees, these same objections, with the possible exception of number one, can be applied to the earlier “plan” to make up days on two Saturdays and Good Friday.  Both plans were/are bad plans for the same reason:  they both compromise days that, according to the 2014-2015 calendar, a calendar which was developed and approved by the school board, were guaranteed to be non-school days.  When an official calendar says that, with the exception of year-round schools, no school will be held on Saturdays, students, parents, and teachers plan activities and/or alternate employment for their Saturdays.  When the official calendar says that there will be a long weekend at the beginning of April, students, parents, and teachers plan for that long weekend. When the school calendar says that, at most, only one day of Spring Break could be taken away because of school missed for inclement weather, students, parents, and teachers make plans for those days.  Often, and especially in the case of Spring Break and long weekends, the plans entail expensive and non-refundable financial obligations.   The decision to make up school on these “protected” days is tantamount to a breach of contract in the eyes of most people in the district.  This, more than lost money and broken expectations, is the real impetus behind the outrage expressed by parents, students, and teachers.

The RIGHT decision to make in terms of make up days, is to use the days itemized on the 2014-2015 Traditional Calendar, in order, as indicated.  The presence of these days on the calendar is, in essence, a clause in the calendar contract, stating to parents and teachers that should any days off be compromised by inclement weather, they can expect that the days listed will be the ones to change from non-school days to school days.  This allows people to manage their expectations and plan for their families, understanding the risks present in the school calendar.  The importance of this security is significant.  People may feel comfortable with their child missing one day of school due to a lost day of Spring Break, and will take the risk to schedule vacation during that week.  Missing THREE days of school, on the other hand, might not be as comfortable. If parents knew that their vacation plans could result in missing THREE DAYS, they may have made different decisions.  The presence of the make up days on the calendar gives people security to be able to plan their lives.  That the board chose to disregard this security has created a breach of trust between the board and the community, which is why it was the WRONG decision to make.

The other factor proving that the right decision would have been to adhere to the posted make up days is that listed make up days are all teacher workdays.  Teachers are expected to report to school on days when it is cancelled for inclement weather.  These canceled days become workdays that are balanced out when students make up instructional time on future planned work days that revert to instructional days.  This alleviates a major issue that the county has right now wherein teachers reported to work for as many as seven snow days, but are now having to work on days which were previously early release, holiday, or vacation days.  The decision to override the established make up days places the school system in debt to employees who now have as many as nine days that they will have worked, but will not have been paid for.  This is yet another reason why the current decision is the WRONG decision.

The million dollar question, therefore, is WHY has the school board opted to disregard the make up dates that they established, approved, and published in favor of days that do nothing but present a hardship to everyone involved?  When one person asked this question on Twitter, the WCPSS Twitter account replied:

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 Curious to read the justification for this decision, I visited the WCPSS website and found this:

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Try as I might, the only answer that I see to this question is in the last sentence, where the county claims that the three end of year workdays listed as make up days are “primarily used for teachers to close out the school year.”  This does not in anyway answer the question of why those days cannot be used.  First, this claim that teachers need those days to close out the year is just not true.  I’m going to go out on a limb here to speak for my colleagues, but no teacher has ever said, “I wish there were more days at the end of the year to ‘close out the school year.'” Second, regardless of teachers’ expectation of having three workdays to close out the year, the presence of those days in the approved list of make-up days communicates to teachers and parents that these days are not guaranteed.  Understanding at the outset that these days are at risk goes a long way in allowing stakeholders to manage their expectations.  Moreover, teachers, parents, and students would have more than two months to adjust to this change rather than a scant two weeks.  That makes a huge difference.  Third, if, as this FAQ response suggests, the last three workdays of school are essential school closing days, certainly this would have been true when the calendar was made and when make up days were designated.  IF this were the true reason, it would have been true every year that human beings have ever participated in public education and therefore, these days would never have been under consideration as potential make up days, much less listed on an official district calendar as such.  This answer, in other words, is not an adequate answer to the question, a key question that MUST be sufficiently answered to restore trust in this school board.

The conclusion that this Board should reach is that the decision to make up school on ANY days other than the ones stated on the 2014-2015 traditional calendar is, in fact, the WRONG decision.  Not only does this create undue complication and controversy regarding employee compensation, but it also creates a distrust between the School Board and the stakeholders in the county.  The school calendar should be viewed as a veritable contract between the Board, parents, teachers, and students, and any deviation from the agreed upon instructional days should be viewed as a breach of that contract.  The outrage expressed in the wake of this controversial decision is not so much about lost money, vacation time, or family time.  The outrage is in response to the utter powerlessness and disrespect that stakeholders feel at not being able to trust the information communicated by this school board.  People feel that they cannot make informed decisions for their families without suddenly and unexpectedly conflicting with their children’s educations.  This is a disservice to the community enacted by a group whose job and basis for election is a promise to behave fairly and transparently to the constituency.

Again, I think we can all appreciate the difficult decisions that must be made regarding inclement weather.  We all also understand that no matter what the decision, some people will find fault with it.  We also know, however, that if fault were found with a decision that had been communicated from the beginning of the school year through the school calendar, the board could justifiably refer to this document as justification for its decision and accurately say that the make up days for inclement weather have been determined since the incarnation of the calendar.  Moreover, I dare say that the outrage would be minimal given the reality that people’s expectations would have been duly managed and the decision-making process would be viewed as entirely transparent.  In light of this, I appeal to the Board to please do the right thing, make the RIGHT decision, and adhere to the make up days that were delineated on the school calendar.  If the Board feels these days are not appropriate for some reason, the proper procedure would be to amend this error in future calendars, not change the rules of the game while the game is being played.  Again, the right call would be to rescind this latest make up day decision and revert to the days designated on the school calendar.  Please restore the trust between your Board and the parents, students, and employees of this school district by reconsidering and retracting the decision made today in favor of the one made over a year ago.

Respectfully submitted,

Concerned teacher and parent

Post script:  If any readers of this open letter agree with the assertions made in this letter, please share it on social media and indicate your support in the comments section.

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