School districts should consider several issues before making the decision to offer a shortened school year either this year or next.
Districts must comply with state and federal mandates regarding services for special education students. Budget shortfalls do not allow curtailment of services to these students.
High school seniors
Diploma and Certificate of Initial Mastery requirements are set by law. Shortening the year may impact students’ ability to meet course credit and attendance requirements. Districts have some flexibility in case of shortened years and the Oregon Dept. of Education allows petitions for waivers of specific standards.
Instructional hours/school year
Law requires an annual school calendar with a minimum number of instructional hours at various grade levels. Minor reductions in those hours are allowed for certain purposes. Student and staff activities related to the closing of the school year are not counted as part of total instructional hours. However, because the law requires “no fewer than 265 consecutive calendar days between the first and last instructional day of each school year at each grade level,” a waiver of this section will be necessary.
Assuming a school district successfully arranges for an early closure or shortened school year, employees may be eligible for unemployment benefits. This expense should be included when a district is considering its options.
Collective bargaining agreements
Check your union contract - it may or may not allow for early closure or shortened school year. Salary schedules for licensed employees generally reflect a set amount for the work year and other contract language usually specifies a set number of workdays. Salary schedules for classified employees generally only reflect an hourly rate for job classifications.
Changes in number of workdays for licensed employees are difficult unless specific contract language allows it. General management rights language is insufficient. General funding language may be insufficient or spark a disagreement over its exact meaning, resulting in arbitration. Specific reopener language using identifiable or quantifiable events (e.g., a 5% reduction in a district’s State School Fund allocation) is necessary for a successful reopener. Reopening an agreement, however, does not mean easy negotiations or that the union will concur with the district’s financial plight and make concessions.
Changes in the number of workdays for classified employees are generally easier, depending upon the wording of the agreement. Some provisions, however, may limit work year changes. For example, a “maintenance of standards” clause may hinder or prevent work year reductions. As noted earlier, specific reopener language is required and, even then, negotiations for reductions could be difficult.
Districts may consider a layoff of the entire workforce for a few days as a possible cost-saving measure. So far, two arbitrators have rejected this approach. It may still be possible, but district representatives should consult with their negotiators and human resource personnel to examine their options.
It is certainly possible to make a direct appeal to employee unions to at least meet and discuss possible alternatives. Given past district experiences, however, employee unions generally decline offers to enter into even informal discussions on wage and benefit reductions.
Law allows alleged violations of state standards to be filed with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Within 90 days of finding a deficiency, a school district must submit an acceptable plan to meet standardization requirements. Deficiencies must be corrected before the beginning of the next school year unless the State Superintendent grants a time extension for compliance. If, for example, a district closes early for the 2008-09 school year with insufficient instructional hours, or is out of compliance with other standards, it will have to correct the problem by the start of the 2009-10 school year.