State says it will stop giving automatic waivers letting Iowa schools start earlier in summer

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DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Department of Education announced Friday it will stop granting automatic waivers to school districts seeking to start classes earlier in the summer, after Gov. Terry Branstad complained that the practice flouts state law and affects tourism — including participation in the popular state fair.

Effective immediately, "each request will be individually reviewed and approved or denied," department director Brad Buck said in a letter to district superintendents and other education leaders.

The announcement comes in response to a letter Branstad sent earlier Friday asking Buck's department to grant a waiver only if a school district demonstrates a "significant negative educational impact" of starting classes earlier than the week of Sept. 1, the date set by Iowa law. Branstad also said starting earlier "unnecessarily interferes" with families' summer plans, seasonal hiring and participation in 4-H and other activities at the Iowa State Fair.

The issue of when Iowa schools should start classes has been going on for years. Iowa law says districts must begin school no earlier than the calendar week that includes Sept. 1. But nearly all seek waivers to start earlier. For the 2014-2015 school year, all but two of 338 public districts in the state obtained a waiver, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.

The group, which has said in the past that it supports school districts having jurisdiction on setting their own calendars, is still reviewing its response to the decision.

"We are looking at next steps, whether that's rule-making, legislative or legal action," said spokeswoman Tracy Bainter.

Officials for at least two large school districts say they're still processing the information and will need time to determine if they will seek waivers again. But David Wilkerson, superintendent for the Waukee Community School District, called the news "disappointing." The district began classes this school year on Aug. 13, and said a later start will have a ripple effect on when certain students take semester exams, advanced placement classes and local college coursework.

"We need to be doing what's best for our students," Wilkerson said. "That's what the focus needs to be ... it can't be what's best for something on a stick or a butter cow or all of those other things. We're not talking about shortening the summer with these calendars. The break is the same, it's just a shifting of when that break occurs by a couple of weeks on either end."

Buck said those issues will be sorted out as the department releases guidance in January on what a school district will need to submit to meet the requirements for a waiver as defined by state law. He said he's heard from a few school districts and called it a "mixed bag of reaction."

"Some are disappointed, some are curious, mostly about what will be contained in those criteria (for the waiver)," Buck said. "Some are largely neutral, and then some are semi-excited."

Branstad's spokesman, Jimmy Centers, noted that legislation passed earlier this year gives school districts and accredited nonpublic schools the option to choose between 180 days or 1,080 hours of instruction for the school year.

"So they still have the flexibility that they like to have locally, but also the students and the families have the benefits of a full summer," he said.

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