Arlington, VA

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The School Board this week unveiled a long-anticipated proposal to start the school year before Labor Day this August.

The change comes after the General Assembly granted more flexibility for school districts last year, and it also comes despite low public support. In fact, according to the APS survey just 25% of parents, 24% of students and 39% of staff like the move.

All indications point to this being the first stop toward starting two weeks before Labor Day next year. For parents who liked to take advantage of late season summer rates for vacations, those days will soon be gone.

The reasons given for starting earlier center around allowing a few more days to prepare for exams that take place in the Spring. It seems little serious consideration was given to eliminating a handful of in service days or early release days instead.

It would be good for the School Board to produce a study that demonstrates an earlier start date produces better scores. It would also be good to see a plan by APS officials on how they will track student achievement the first year to see if the change really matters.

Many researchers have suggested that one way to improve student performance is to start school later in the day for middle and high school students. Getting more sleep not only helps school performance, but it makes adolescents healthier overall and less likely to engage in risky behaviors. While science may back up the idea of starting these schools at 9 a.m., it is unlikely that APS would seriously pursue such a plan.

Speaking of elected officials doing things just because they can, the County Board last weekend approved big raises for their most senior employees. County Manager Mark Schwartz is now making a salary of $282,489, a 4.5% raise, and County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac will receive $261,933, a 3.5% raise.

Up next for the County Board is whether they will raise their own pay and by how much. Last June, the Board voted to cap salaries at $89,851 for Members and $95,734 for the Chair effective January 1. If they opt to go to the maximum this year, it would represent a 63% increase in pay.

The Board has not said when it would pass a pay raise. They have indicated this year’s budget may pass without a tax rate increase in April. This decision would not be a heavy lift as property assessments are up 4.6% over last year. The assessment increase should present an opportunity for the Board to lower the tax rate, but no property owners I have talked to are holding their breath expecting that to happen.

Whatever the Board ultimately does with their own pay, they should hold a straight up or down vote on it before they pass a budget that will almost certainly have increased taxes on homeowners by more than 9% over the past two years. The Board should not bury a pay raise in the annual budget or wait till June to pass it as they did with the pay cap.

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