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School districts left scratching their heads over Cuomo's windy day freebie

Each year school districts build snow days into their schedule to make sure students are in class for the required 180 days.

Last Sunday night, when strong winds were still whipping Western New York – knocking down trees and causing power outages – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put out a statement that mentioned that Amherst Central had closed schools the following day. He also indicated if districts ran out of snow days, the day would not be held against them.

Cue the cheering students. And teachers.

But not so fast. A process is already in place at the state Education Department to request a waiver to the 180-day rule, and it requires schools to use all of their scheduled vacation days before requesting a waiver.

And schools still have their weeklong spring break in April and probably several other vacation days left this year they can use. Many had scheduled days off on the Fridays before spring break and Memorial Day, so if they used up their allotted snow days on the windstorm, one of those would become days of attendance.

So what did the governor's statement mean? School superintendents scratched their heads, and some of them called Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Lynn Fusco, the education commissioner's representative for the Erie 1 component districts.

"The questions that came from local superintendents were because they understood the regulation and the process for the request for a waiver," she said.

And the process doesn't usually include a freebie from the governor's office.

A spokesman for the governor's office said the administration knew the extreme weather posed significant danger.

"We wanted to ensure that schools knew they would not be penalized if they did not have any available school days," spokesman Don Kaplan said in a statement. "This administration and NYSED have agreed extraordinary condition waivers will be granted in cases where there are insufficient available remaining school and vacation days."

The state Education Department is the agency that grants the waivers.

And by the way, how did Amherst get in the original statement?

Superintendent Anthony J. Panella is mystified as to how and why his district was mentioned. It used its last snow day that Monday, so it did not need a waiver.

“I wish I could tell you I had a pipeline to the governor's office,” he said. “I did not contact him.”

Like many districts, Amherst has a plan on what days to recover in case it uses all its snow days. If it has to take another one, then May 24, the Friday before Memorial Day, would become a school day.

"For me, it's not about calendar; it's about kids and safety," Panella said. "There's always opportunities to make up days down the road if we need to close because of a storm or threat to safety."

Going to school 180 days is about more than academics. According to the state Education Department, general aid will be reduced by 1/180th of a district's foundation aid for each day schools are in session less than 180 days. Days that count as part of the 180 include Regents exam and ratings day and up to four superintendent's conference days.

No more snow days? No problem for school districts, governor says

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