What a difference a word makes

At first blush, an obscure change to state law stipulating how many days students have to go to school each year seems like semantics.

But in fact, it could give local school districts flexibility to cut the number of school days in a year and instead go for longer hours — a schedule that could help cash-strapped school systems save money.

Until this year, state law mandated the school year had to be at least 185 days and 1,025 hours of instruction.

Lawmakers changed it to 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction.

Schools can now go fewer days and get in the same number of hours, explained Fred Trantham, policy director for Haywood County Schools.

“That ‘or’ means you could really shrink the school year down quite a bit,” Trantham said.

Increasing the school day by just 30 minutes,could trim nearly three weeks off the school year. Going longer hours for fewer days saves on the overhead of running a school, from school bus drivers to utility costs to janitors.

Hours of instruction don’t include class changes, lunch, recess and the like. So, despite the seven-hour-day at most schools, students come away with something less than that — probably around six hours — of actual instruction time.

Technically, a school district could now go to school for only three hours a day for 185 days, though it is hard to imagine anyone would do this.

“As long as they meet one or another they are fine,” said Linda Fuller, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Instruction.

The more likely scenario is some school districts may go longer hours for fewer days.

“We have been pushing for a longer school calendar but with this ‘or’ in here, districts could go way less than 185 days,” Fuller said. “They figured it out that some districts could go to school for only 160 some days.”

Andrew Cox, also with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh who specializes in school calendar issues, said he does not know of any school districts yet that are planning to trim days off the school year, but some have been discussing the option.

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