OCEAN CITY – Following an uneventful legislative session for the proposed state-mandated post-Labor Day start for public schools this year, the Ocean City Tourism Commission went back to the drawing board last week to start strategizing for the next legislative session.
The post-Labor Day school start bills, cross-filed in the House and Senate over the winter, never got any traction during this year’s session and both failed to make it out of committee in either chamber.
The two Lower Shore legislators told the Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC) in early May the effort would continue in the 2016 session. Although a poll earlier this year showed parents and teachers across Maryland supported the proposed legislation, it turned out to be a tough sell in other areas around the state.
Last August, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot was on the Boardwalk in Ocean City to launch a petition drive seeking 10,000 signatures advocating a mandated post-Labor Day start to the public school year in Maryland as part of his “Let Summer Be Summer” campaign. At the opening of the 2015 session in January, the campaign appeared to be gaining momentum as Franchot and its other major supporters, including Mathias, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, other elected officials, small business owners, educators and tourism officials, turned in the petition with over 13,000 signatures. Also in attendance at the press conference was Gov. Larry Hogan, who endorsed the issue.
However, by session’s end, the bills, after routine committee hearings, died a quiet death, at least for the 2015 session without so much as a vote at the committee level. Shortly after the session, Mathias said the bill is complicated and could take two or more sessions to gain the approval of state lawmakers.
“It had previously come up that there is a need for Ocean City having a strategy in moving forward before the next session begins for this to hopefully come to fruition,” Tourism and Marketing Director Donna Abbott said last week. “My only concern would be of the criticism that was coming through that this would be legislation that would only benefit Ocean City, so if move forward with a strategy of our own that may be perceived reconfirming the same criticism from the past session.”
Currently, school systems across Maryland have the autonomy to set their own schedules, as long as they meet the state-mandated minimum number of days. Many are returning as early as mid-August. In Worcester, public schools returned after Labor Day last year and will do so again despite the late date this year. Wicomico will continue to start the week before Labor Day, according to its approved calendar for the next school year.
The bill’s detractors claim a statewide mandate would only benefit resort areas, particularly Ocean City, and have pushed to let the public school systems continue to set their own schedules.
“I am not afraid,” Meehan said in response to Abbott.
In speaking with Mathias and Carozza following the legislative session, Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce President Brett Wolf stated they all agreed there needs to be a plan in moving forward.
“We need to have someone forefront because it is going to be an uphill battle with different voting blocks that are going to be against it for various reasons,” Wolf said. “We need to plan for this and have something in place.”
Michael James of the EDC suggested a meeting with Mathias and Carozza to target the bill’s opposition.
“We should go directly to the legislators from those districts and talk to them about how their voters would prefer it,” James said.
“We really need to figure out why people are against it, and one of the main reasons is based on where they’re from and how it impacts their children. Once we figure that out, Mary Beth [Carozza] and Jim [Mathias] can talk to the delegations from those areas and address their concerns in why they think this is a bad thing and help convince them on why this would be a good thing. I think it’s not just a one size fits all solution,” Wolf said.
Commission Chair and Council Secretary Mary Knight suggested revisiting an advertising campaign the town’s ad agency, MGH, formulated a couple years ago.
In March 2013, MGH Advertising President Andy Malis presented a “fun tongue in cheek” campaign that would promote support for students to return to school after the Labor Day weekend and in turn have attention stirred up towards Ocean City.
MGH came up with two ads beckoning the children of Maryland to “nag” their parents to sign a petition supporting schools starting after Labor Day.
Sections of the ad read, “The government is stealing your fun. In the state where we live, it is Maryland in case you haven’t gotten to that in Social Studies yet, school systems have been systematically shortening your summer vacation. In some cases school now begins on Aug. 20, more than a full month before the actual end of summer. That’s just wrong.”
It continued, “We don’t know the long term effects of being denied that extra bit of fun. What we do know is a few more weeks of skeet ball could have finally earned you enough tickets for that lava lamp that you had your eyes on. But that chance has been snatched away from you by well-meaning bureaucrats who have forgotten the value of fun in a child’s life. Think about it a generation will now grow up without the time to fully master the boogie board.”
A website was proposed to be set up at www.longersummer.com where parents can choose “Yes, I want my kids to enjoy a little more time at the beach just like I did” or “No, I hate fun and I want to pass that onto my children.”
Knight also suggested looking to the $30,000 the town recently received in return from its investment in the “Ping Pong Summer” movie to fund a campaign advocating a post-Labor Day school start date.
In the meantime Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel and Wolf will work on getting a meeting together with Carozza and Mathias to start focusing on the proposed legislation’s opposition.