Mathias Seeks Task Force To Study Later School Start

OCEAN CITY — Responding to a call to revisit the issue, Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) last week introduced legislation in the General Assembly that would create a task force to study the possibility of pushing the start date for public schools across Maryland back until after Labor Day.

For decades, the public school year in Maryland always started after Labor Day, the symbolic end to the summer season, but in recent years, most jurisdictions have moved the start date earlier and earlier, into mid-August in some cases. Because of its resort nature, Worcester was one of the last to hold onto the post-Labor Day start date for schools, but the county has joined the ranks of other school systems starting in late August in recent years.

Last April, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot met with Ocean City business leaders to jumpstart his initiative to push the start of the school year back after Labor Day, citing the economic benefit to the state while maintaining the mandated number days in the school calendar. Meanwhile, Greg Shockley, who chairs the state’s Tourism Development Board, approached Mathias recently about introducing legislation to at least study the issue and the senator obliged.

“It’s a vital bill for us,” said Mathias this week. “Greg Shockley reached out to me and told me it’s something that’s really needed and wanted. This task force would look at the issue comprehensively, from the economic impact, to keeping the summer workforce intact, and from the educational impact to the importance of keeping the family together for another week at the end of the summer.”

The bill calls for the creation of a task force to study the issue from all sides. The task force would include state and local elected officials, school administrators, teachers, students and parents and business leaders. Mathias said he was keenly aware of the potential impacts on the school calendar, but hoped a compromise solution could be reached.

“I understand that the educational system going forward has put a lot of emphasis on testing and the number of days to prepare for the tests is so important, but I think there might be a solution to keep the mandated number of days while providing considerable economic benefit,” he said. “As we move forward, we want to look at the whole picture, from the economic impact to the educational issues and have a coherent roundtable discussion. That’s the basis for this bill.”

When Franchot met with resort business leaders last spring to launch his “Let Summer Mean Summer” and “Line in the Sand” initiatives, the comptroller said the early start date for schools has made it increasingly difficult for small businesses in Ocean City and across the state.

“It has a negative impact on small businesses throughout Ocean City that rely on a strong tourist season,” he said. “During these tough economic times, we have to do all we can to foster growth. A busy summer in Ocean City is critical for this community and the entire state. Losing 7-10 days in August could be the difference between making it or closing doors.”

The numbers Franchot presented last spring appear to bear that out. For example, 32 million domestic travelers visited Maryland last year and the tourism sector employs over 340,000 workers with the summer months particularly busy. An August week in Ocean City can generate almost $5 million in state and local revenues, and nearly $3 million can be generated on a holiday weekend.

State law requires a 180-day school year, but Franchot has said he is confident the best public school system in the country would be able to achieve the mandated number of days with a post-Labor Day start.

“Our school system has been rated the top in the nation for several years now and our teachers, administrators, and support staff are the most talented in the country,” he said. “I am confident they can adjust the school calendar in order to provide for a start after Labor Day.”

Beyond the economic and educational aspects of the issue, Franchot evoked nostalgic memories of family vacations in the summer to further prove the point.

“It’s a win for students and a win for families,” he said. “Summer means summer. The end of August is about getting in the last game of mini-golf or skee ball on the Boardwalk with the family, or eating that last batch of steamed crabs on the deck. It isn’t meant for waiting on a bus stop or sitting in a classroom.”

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan has said changing family dynamics have made the traditional summer vacation more difficult. He said cutting summer short by a week or two at the end of August has contributed to that.

“Maryland families today find it difficult to get time off for vacation with both parents working and cutting summer short by a couple of weeks limits those opportunities further,” he said. “We can’t continue to allow that to happen.”

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