A Closer Look at “Districts of Innovation”

A Closer Look at “Districts of Innovation”
Posted on 03/01/2017

Last week, I wrote about the process and considerations we undertake when setting our annual district calendar. Our Board of Trustees and administration faced a number of obstacles in setting the 2017-18 calendar, including the mandated start of school date, which proved a major road block. The Texas Legislature requires that school districts may not start school before the fourth Monday in August, which is Aug. 28 this year, the latest start date we have seen in 11 years. This late start date also pushed our end date later into June and complicated trying to balance the fall and spring semesters with all of the required student holidays, staff development, testing days and so forth. Largely because of this restrictive start date, some districts throughout the state are becoming “Districts of Innovation” by taking advantage of a new concept created by the 84th Legislature in 2015. As this is a new and increasingly utilized provision, I would like to provide some additional insight.

The debate over the school start date has been ongoing for decades; the legislature has moved the first day of school at least five times since 1984. In 1991, the law requiring a uniform start date was repealed, and the years following saw the beginning of school creep earlier and earlier, eventually starting at the beginning of August. The Texas tourism industry pushed back against lost travel days, parents pushed back against frequent changes and some schools pushed back against August heat challenges (high costs to cool schools, limited outdoor time for kids, athletic limitations, etc.). This resulted in the 2006 amendment that set our late August start date.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 1842, again amending the Texas Education Code to allow academically acceptable school districts up to five years of exemptions to certain state requirements currently available to public charter schools. Districts can select from a list of mandates they plan to exempt itself from – including selecting its start date, length of school day, teacher certification and appraisal requirements, class-size ratios, etc. According to the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), 95 percent of the Districts of Innovation that have proposed exemptions have sought school start date flexibility.

To become a District of Innovation, LISD would have to follow a process that would require roughly three months. First, our Board of Trustees would need to sign a resolution and hold a public hearing to consider developing an innovation plan. If they opt to move forward, the Board would appoint a committee to create a plan, which would be made available for public review. The committee would then hold another public hearing, adopt a final plan and present it to the Board. If the Board adopts the final plan by a two-thirds majority, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is notified and it goes into effect. Approval of the plan is not required by the TEA, but it may intervene if necessary.

Through our recent monthslong calendar process, our Board weighed the merits of becoming a District of Innovation, and we agree it is a topic that deserves further consideration. However, for the time being, this would mean delaying setting our calendar until late-May in order to develop and submit the required plan to become a District of Innovation. Additionally, we have reason to believe the current 85th Legislature may alter or repeal this legislation, potentially requiring LISD to once again revise our 2017-18 calendar as late as June.

Because we believe the recently approved calendar meets the needs of our students, staff and parents, and in an effort to minimize disruptions to the plans of our families and teachers as much as possible, we have chosen to forego the District of Innovation process at this time.

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