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Start date debate on for 2015

(Nov. 14, 2014) If it’s not too early to start thinking about Christmas – and it’s not, according to K-Mart – then it’s not too early to start thinking about the 2016 legislative session in Annapolis.

Among a number of potential hot topics for the 2016 Maryland General Assembly, the one most critical to the resort area stands to be the anticipated bill to enact a statewide post-Labor Day school start date.

The only hitch to the plan is last week’s overturn in the state’s leadership, which saw Democrat Anthony Brown – currently the lieutenant governor to Gov. Martin O’Malley – lose the governor’s race to Republican businessman Larry Hogan.

“At one point, we had hoped the school start date would be an administrative bill to put in by O’Malley, but that didn’t happen this year,” said Greg Shockley, a Boardwalk businessman and member of the state’s task force on a post-Labor Day start date.

The task force was formed by legislation introduced in the State Senate by Jim Mathias (D, Somerset/Worcester/Wicomico) and in the House of Delegates by Delegate Anne Healey (D, Prince George’s).

O’Malley had supported the effort, but the final study and recommendation by the task force was not complete in time for the legislative session this past spring.

“There are Republicans who have been in favor of it who can take it to Hogan,” Shockley said. “We’ll see what his approach will be. Short of it being an administrative bill, Healey and Mathias can introduce it legislatively.”

The final recommendation of the task force was issued in July, with the group voting 12-to-3 to recommend a state-wide post-Labor Day start date. Currently, county-level school districts are free to set their own calendars without any hard requirements from Annapolis.

As such, the measure was staunchly opposed by county superintendents, many of whom voiced fears of the state encroaching onto one of the few things they are still able to independently tailor to their districts – the school calendar – in an age of increasing standardization throughout the nation.

The obvious goal of a statewide post-Labor Day start date would be a boost to the tourism economy, estimated in a report by state Comptroller Peter Franchot – a proponent of a later start date – as a $74.3 million impact.

Although one study in South Carolina found “little correlation  … between school start dates and hotel occupancy,” the vast majority of the economic projections featured in the task force’s report indicated a positive outcome.

Further, the report notes that the task force “acknowledges that they understand the rationale for a pre-Labor Day start date made by the various speakers, but felt that there was no quantifiable evidence that a post-Labor Day start is harmful to local school systems.”

In the coming year, opposition to the measure in Annapolis is expected to come from two fronts. One would be teachers’ unions, who have opposed the task force’s finding that school could start later by reducing teacher in-service days and having teachers “obtain professional development or professional learning via experiences beyond the contractual school day and year.”

Along with extended holiday breaks, teacher in-service days are the main driver of “lost” days throughout the year. If these trends continue, Shockley and others have said, the school calendar will continue to eat up the beginning and end of summer while actually featuring less classroom time for students.

Additionally, the task force recommended that the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association review its policies on start dates for school sports.

Currently, regardless of their local school start dates, the beginning of the fall season for all state association teams is the sixth Wednesday following the first Sunday in July.

Pushing the school year back would mean that coaches would be faced with additional “in-season” practices taking place when athletes were not yet back and school and may still be on vacation.

The MPSSA has also opposed a later start date by citing a potential $450,000 in additional pre-season pay for coaches, who would be working longer prior to the school year if the start date of classroom instruction was pushed back.

Worcester County schools started after Labor Day for the current school year, but were the only jurisdiction in Maryland to do so.

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