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Poll eyed for post Labor Day start

(March 21, 2014) Although the issue is on the back burner in Annapolis, tourism industry leaders are looking into a public opinion poll as a way to sway the state the next time the issue of a post-Labor Day start date arises.

“One of the big questions in this is what the general population, particularly the parents of students, actually want,” said David Reel of the Maryland Hotel & Lodging Association.

“There was a reader poll in the Baltimore Sun that showed 60 percent were in favor of starting after Labor Day, which kind of piqued my interest.”

That poll, Reel noted, was obviously self-selecting. To have any weight in Annapolis, a scientifically designed opinion study would need to be funded.

“I’ve been reaching out to people to see if there would be interest in funding it,” Reel said. “It’s just being discussed at this point.”

Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel pitched the idea to the city’s Tourism Commission last week.

“I’m going to be presenting it to my board as well,” Pursel said. “The thought was to see how much money would be out there to fund this, and get some good solid data to support any decision the task force might make.”

Roughly a year ago, State Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) submitted legislation authorizing a task force to study a post-Labor Day start. Currently, each of the Maryland’s county-level school districts are free to set their own calendar. The General Assembly, if it so wished, could legislate a state-wide school start date.

The task force is required to submit a final recommendation this June. Earlier, it was thought that the group may finish early enough to have its recommendation acted upon during the current legislative session, before the state’s lawmakers break for the summer, but that process was bogged down with a number of concerns.

While business groups have lobbied hard to compact the school year into a shorter time span, the state’s superintendents have resisted any mandate on school calendars, one of the few things they still control in an environment of increased state and national school standardization.

The core issue is what has been described as an “arms race” in school start dates, driven by competitive state testing schedules, competitive fall-season athletics, and increased days off through the year often mandated by in-service training agreements with teachers’ unions.

Interestingly enough, Worcester County will be starting the 2014-2015 school year after Labor Day.

“It was interesting that Worcester ended up doing that on their own,” Reel said. “We have gotten resistance from a lot of schools who say that stopping the start date creep will take years, or is impossible.

“I’m not privy to the discussions that went into [Worcester’s decision], but I think it shows that you can push back the start date if you make it a priority.”

An opinion poll would only give the task force, and the state legislature, more ammunition to support a mandated post-Labor Day start if they were to do so. But it could also backfire.

“We feel confident that it would come out with a favorable view of our position, but you never know,” Pursel said. “You have to be prepared for it to come out not the way you wanted it to.”

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