Monday, August 20, 2012
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Snow joke: Roanoke, Roanoke County students headed to post-Labor Day start in 2013

Unless Roanoke County has an unusually high number of snow days, students will return to a post-Labor Day start next year.

While waiting for the Roanoke school bus early Monday morning, Seeta Chhetvi coaches her 6-year-old daughter Sujana Chhetvi on what to expect on her first day.

Photos by Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

While waiting for the Roanoke school bus early Monday morning, Seeta Chhetvi coaches her 6-year-old daughter Sujana Chhetvi on what to expect on her first day. "She's so excited," said Chhetvi.

Bus driver Chuck Beckner readies his bus Monday morning for the first day of school in Roanoke.

Bus driver Chuck Beckner readies his bus Monday morning for the first day of school in Roanoke.

Roanoke students returned to school Monday — marking one of the earliest start dates and shortest summers for city students in recent memory.

Legislation passed in 2011 grants the city school division a pre-Labor Day start date because the city is surrounded by a locality that qualifies for a winter weather-related waiver.

“We are tied to Roanoke County’s waiver, so as long as the county qualifies for a waiver, we do as well. Regrettably, unless something changes, the county’s waiver expires this year,” said Roanoke School Board Chairman David Carson.

Roanoke County qualifies for the waiver from the Virginia Department of Education because inclement weather closed schools for an average of at least eight days in five of the last 10 years.

“I think if we have a horrendous [winter] — I mean a whole bunch [of days missed], we could get a one-year extension,” said Allen Journell, deputy superintendent Roanoke County Schools.

Journell said Roanoke County Public Schools would have to close at least 10 days in 2012-13 to keep the waiver for 2013-14. The division hasn’t missed 10 or more days since the 2003-04 school year — but that’s not because it did not snow.

Roanoke County’s lack of snow days the past decade is partly the result of several recent winters with below-normal snowfall and partly the result of snowfalls that happened to occur when school was already out for various reasons.

Officially, Roanoke recorded only between 3 and 10.5 inches of snow in six of the last seven winters. About 18 inches is considered normal.

The winter of 2009-10 was very snowy — 43 inches, the seventh largest snowfall in Roanoke’s weather history. The biggest snowstorm that winter dumped 18 inches on Dec. 18-19. That snow remained on the ground for more than two weeks, mostly when Roanoke County students were off for winter break.

The biggest snow of the 2010-11 winter, 3 inches, occurred on Christmas Day. Several snowfalls in the past several years have occurred on weekends and melted quickly, such as this past winter’s lone snowstorm on Feb. 19, a Sunday.

When to start the school year has been a recurring debate among Virginia legislators. Tourism lobbyists, who argue that earlier start dates would affect family vacations, typically are successful in keeping the law the same. Bills to undo the so-called “Kings Dominion law” that was passed in 1986 were proposed year after year without success. Former Del. Bill Cleaveland found a way around that when he proposed a bill that would allow a school division entirely surrounded by school divisions with pre-Labor Day starts to piggyback the neighbor’s waiver.

Carson, the school board chairman, said city school officials will work with Roanoke Valley lawmakers to change the law during this winter’s General Assembly session. He asserts that each local school board should have the authority to set its own school calendar.

“Providing local school divisions with the authority to start and end the school year when they think it is best for their students costs the state nothing, is consistent with the Jeffersonian belief in local government, and above all makes sense,” Carson wrote in an email Saturday.

Roanoke was able to begin school before Labor Day this school year and last. City students’ summer break began June 5, which meant 75 days off in June, July and August. The 2012-13 school year is slated to end May 30. That could make for a long break — about 95 days — if schools cannot open before the end-of-summer holiday next year.

Schools in Bedford and Franklin counties also opened Monday. The first day of school for students in Craig and Roanoke counties is today.

Staff writer Kevin Myatt contributed to this report.

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