New RI law allows schools to reconfigure school days and school year

By Steve Adams

A new law passed by the Rhode Island Legislature this summer and signed by Gov. Chafee allows public schools to lengthen school days and shorten the number of days required of students in the school year.

The measure, which amends R.I.G.L. § 16-2-2, divides the school year into hours and minutes allowing districts to create flexible schedules, such as going to four-day weeks, as long as the minimum number of hours is met (1,080). Schools are free to exceed the minimum amount of instructional time required under the law.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Picard (D-Woonsocket), said the law contemplates longer school days and fewer than 180 days, reducing the number of days that school facilities must be fully staffed and maintained, potentially saving money for school districts.

Under the prior law, each school district was required to provide a minimum of 180 days of instruction in a school year, typically with a minimum of six hours each day, excluding lunch and recess.

Before implementing a flexible schedule pursuant to the new law, a school district must submit a request to the Rhode Island Department of Education for approval. A RIDE spokesman said in published reports that Commissioner Deborah Gist will not automatically approve a proposed change in an instructional schedule and that she will be “judicious” in her decisions.

According to the statute, a school district must submit to RIDE “a detailed school day plan and a proposed school calendar.” The law defers to the commissioner’s discretion, stating that the commissioner “may grant or deny approval of the plan and/or the calendar” based on “whether the plan and calendar are academically sound and fiscally efficient.”

The law does not define the key phrases “academically sound” and “fiscally efficient” leaving it fairly wide open to interpretation by the commissioner.

Nonetheless, a request to alter the school year should include a plan that maps out the school days and school calendar in detail. The request should also explain how the proposal will maintain the same (or even improve) academic standards as under the current calendar, and how the proposed modification will benefit the school district’s finances.

Steve is administrative partner in the Providence office of Barton Gilman. He focuses his practice on school law and civil litigation.