The Howard County school board is battling the state about orders tochange two sections of a county school attendance policy that local officials say meets their community's needs just fine.
A provisionthat allows students five days a year of excused absences for college visits or family trips "at parental discretion" isn't on the state's list of lawful absences, State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick advised local officials in December.
The state superintendent also said Howard County fell short by suggesting rather than requiring that individual schools develop rewards and incentives for attendance.
"The thing that ticked me off andticked the rest of the board off is (the assertion) that this parental discretion is not consistent with state regulations," said board chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig, who fired off a protest letter to Grasmick last month.
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey saw the points raised by the state as "nit-picking" and said he does not plan to changeeither section until Grasmick responds to the protest.
Kendig argued that the local policy is stricter than the state's list of lawfulabsences, which allows school officials to excuse students for any "other emergency or set of circumstances which . . . constitutes a good and sufficient cause for absence from school."
Howard's policy puts a cap on the number of days of excused absences, which the "otheremergency" section of state regulations does not, Kendig pointed out.
Dropping the parental discretion terminology and putting absences for trips or college into "other emergency" was suggested by Valerie V. Cloutier, assistant state attorney general who reviewed the policy.
"There's no condition called parental discretion days" in state regulations, Cloutier said. She said the superintendent or his designee can approve college visits or family trips on a case-by-case basis, "but to give a blanket five-day approval goes beyond the state regulations."
If the county board fails to make the changes the state wants, Cloutier said the state's options include seeking a court order or withholding state aid. She noted that state education officials have not asked her what steps they could take to force compliance.
Grasmick did not respond to a request for comment, but Martha J. Fields, assistant deputy state superintendent and the staff member assigned to the attendance policy review, said she was unaware the Howard officials had any problems making the revisions.
Cloutier said the county school system could comply with the rewards and incentives issue by changing the word "should" to "shall" in a sentence that says, "Schools should encourage attendance through motivational activities . . ."
Kendig said in her response that the board chose its phrasing in response to parents' comments that children should not be bribed to attend school.
Kendig sees the issue as state intrusion onthe local board's autonomy. "I think this was micro-managing and substituting their counsel's judgment without any knowledge of the legislative history," Kendig said.
Parents lobbied the county board extensively last spring for a discretionary leave policy, arguing that students shopping for colleges don't get an accurate picture if they visit campuses only on weekends and that trips can have educational value.
By making the days an excused absence, with advance permission from the school principal, the board gave students the right to receive credit for making up work they miss while out of school.