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As snow days pile up, school districts ask lawmakers for relief

Stillwater Area Schools Superintendent Denise Pontrelli testifies before the House Education Policy Committee on HF1982, sponsored by Rep. Shelly Christensen, left. Photo by Paul Battaglia

School district officials could soon be breathing a sigh of relief as lawmakers have fast tracked a bill that would allow them to shorten their academic calendars.

Sponsored by Rep. Shelly Christensen (DFL-Stillwater), HF1982, as amended, would allow school districts to count three cancelled days during the 2018-19 school year as regular school days.

“They’re doing their best to make up for lost days and hours, however, the increasing number of closures is making it difficult,” Christensen said.

The bill was approved by the House Education Policy Committee Wednesday and now heads to the House Floor The companion, SF1743, sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester), awaits action on the Senate Floor. 

Denise Pontrelli, superintendent of Stillwater Area Public Schools, said that in her 30-plus years in education, she hasn’t experienced anything like this winter’s challenging weather conditions. She also highlighted the difficult decision she faces when weighing whether to cancel school or close early. 

“Calling a snow day is never an easy decision,” she said. “This year it’s been even more challenging than ever.”

Districts are currently making up days, planning to convene on holidays, staying longer in June, or taking a day or two from spring break vacations. The bill would not only prevent that, it would help them avoid potential funding cuts for not meeting the state requirement of 165 school days, Pontrelli explained.

“Timing is of the essence. Stillwater, like many other districts across the state, are already trying to make up those days and there are fewer and fewer options,” she said.

Unlike salaried staff, hourly staff miss out on pay when school’s cancelled. The bill would stipulate that hourly school district staff, including food service workers, paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers and pre-kindergarten teachers either be compensated for the missed hours, or allowed to make up the time.

It also encourages companies that contract with districts, such as private bus companies, to compensate their employees for missed time.

Scott McMahon, who represents the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, expressed concern over that portion of the bill, explaining that contractors don’t receive compensation from districts on cancelled days, so relaying that cost onto them poses a financial burden.  

“What we’re being asked for, is for us to dip into our pocketbooks to pay our drivers when our clients that we’re working for, the school districts, aren’t compensating us for those situations,” he said. “If we were to get revenue from school districts we would happily pay our drivers and in many situations we’re trying to figure out how to make them whole.”

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe) suggested modifying the bill to clearly indicate that a contractor’s decision to compensate their employees for missed hours is encouraged but not mandatory.

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