Start date aside, school calendar set locally


David Polashek

One would not have to wander too far off the path around the Falls to understand that public schools in Wisconsin have many different features. Even so, the Wisconsin Constitution requires that “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable…”

Even with requirements for uniformity, Wisconsin has always prided itself on local control. Depending on the issue, districts can have local control and at other times, hands are tied pretty tightly. The state Legislature sometimes flutters in the wind, and like the currents in Lambeau Field, the wind can come from many different directions.

The school calendar is one of those issues. School districts must schedule 180 days of instruction. Just how those days are scheduled is a local decision, except for when the classes can start. Years ago the wind coming off the waters flowing between the picturesque natural landforms bordering the Wisconsin River caught the ear of legislators. “Never let school start before Sept. 1” was the message they heard whispered in the wind from the central part of the state.

Responding to the whispered message, school start language was blended into one of those famous sausages known as the state budget. That particular part of the recipe schools have to follow has never changed, even though there is no sound educational rationale for the Sept. 1 start date. Neighboring states had similar restrictions but relaxed with time. It seems that Wisconsin legislators fear catching cold should that frigid Wisconsin Dells north wind ever blow again.

Even though the start date for Wisconsin schools seems about as immovable as the hills of Devil’s Lake State Park, school districts have local control over the rest of the school calendar. The period running from the last part of October through Thanksgiving may be reflective of the greatest variation in school calendars.

Traditionally, there were no classes on the last Thursday and Friday of October. These were known as “Teacher Convention Days.” At one time some districts required attendance at the conventions, but later these were just scheduled as vacation days. A couple of years ago when legislation was passed which restricted Wisconsin public employee bargaining rights, Wisconsin Education Association Council canceled its convention held on those dates.

With no convention, many districts adjusted schedules, and classes were held on one or both of those days. In the Oconto Falls schools, students had both days off last year, but teachers had in-service on one of the two days. This year, classes will be held Thursday. Friday will continue to be a scheduled vacation day. Things may change next year.

An even bigger calendar variation occurs in November with Thanksgiving and what some might consider an even more important tradition, the annual whitetail hunt. School districts might be classified on the blaze orange scale. Some districts just take off Thanksgiving and the following Friday, known as Black Friday. Perhaps this should be measured on the orange and black scale, which we note are the Panther school colors.

A little higher rating on the blaze orange scale would be those districts, including Oconto Falls, who schedule the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as a vacation day. The highest rating on the blaze orange scale would be those districts that schedule the entire week of Thanksgiving as a vacation period. This has to do with the hunt, not the fact that the Thanksgiving turkey needs to be slow cooked.

Yet one more variation in the school calendar included a pattern of having the Friday before Thanksgiving as a vacation day. Such was the case in this district for many years. The rationale was safety, due to the heavy flow of northbound traffic on Highway 141. That day, countless hunters headed to the deer camp “Up Nort.” It was not safe for school buses to get into the flow for the daily commute to school in this long, narrow district that has Highway 141 as its central backbone.

That all changed when Highway 141 was converted to a limited access highway with overpasses and bypasses on the most heavily traveled intersections.

The district calendar still provides a little flexibility for deer hunters. Attendance patterns for the Friday before Thanksgiving and days during Thanksgiving week still show a number of students, with permission from parents, take a little more local control with that calendar.

School calendars are reflective of the local culture, and the November school calendar tells a lot about where a community sits on the blaze orange scale.

David Polashek is superintendent of the Oconto Falls School District