School Start Date Petition Begins; Legislature Likely To Vote On Issue Next year

School Start Date Petition Begins; Legislature Likely To Vote On Issue Next year
Along with Comptroller Peter Franchot, left, signing the petition to start schools after Labor Day in Maryland were State Senator Jim Mathias, hotelier and amusement park owner Charles “Buddy” Jenkins and the Harrison Group’s G. Hale Harrison. Photo by Shawn Soper

OCEAN CITY — With summer winding down and school systems across Maryland about to open, the effort to mandate a post-Labor Day start for public school systems across the state gained some momentum on Thursday with the launch of a petition drive on the Boardwalk.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot first broached the idea of mandating a post-Labor Day start for public schools two years ago with a special “Let Summer Be Summer” campaign at Hooper’s Crab House in West Ocean City. Two years later, Franchot was on the Boardwalk near the Inlet on Thursday morning to launch a petition drive seeking at least 10,000 signatures to present to the General Assembly during its 2014 session.

Two years ago, State Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) was able to successfully get a bill passed creating a task force to study the post-Labor Day school start issue. The 15-member panel voted 11-4 this year to forward a favorable recommendation to the General Assembly to pass legislation mandating the change. As it stands now, each school district has the autonomy to set their school schedules with the majority returning in late August. Worcester County this year decided to push its start date back beyond Labor Day.

The task force’s favorable recommendation came too late to get legislation introduced and voted on during the 2014 session, setting the stage for what will likely be a pertinent issue in 2015. In advance of the session, however, Franchot, along with Mathias and several task force members launched a petition drive on the Boardwalk in Ocean City on Thursday against the backdrop of a picture-perfect mid-August morning in the resort.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said he spoke at the opening of the Maryland Association of Counties convention earlier on Thursday and asked for a show of hands from those in attendance how many started school before Labor Day and there were only a few in the crowd of several hundred. Meehan said the push for the post-Labor Day school start across the state was obviously good for the resort, but also for all Marylanders.

“It certainly is in the best interest of Ocean City and all of Maryland,” he said. “With the comptroller’s petition, the effort starts today. This is where it starts and we’ll take it to the General Assembly. This is something we need to accomplish.”

Franchot pointed to an economic study of the issue, which revealed a direct economic impact of $75 million, along with $7.7 million in tax revenue and $4 million in employee earnings associated with the later school start.

“Ocean City is such an important part of our economic future and it’s not just the tax collected, but the jobs created,” he said. “More importantly, it’s about summer and families. Families save a little each paycheck to spend a week in Ocean City.”

Franchot pointed out his sister is a teacher in Pennsylvania and the summer has pinched shorter each year there. He said last year many Pennsylvania schools went back on July 31 and this year was July 28. He hopes the petition drive will keep that from happening in Maryland.

“When you look at this weather today, this is the kind of day Maryland families have enjoyed in this town for generations,” he said. “Unfortunately, these days keep getting cut shorter and shorter. Every year, the school year starts creeping closer and closer to July. If we don’t draw a line in the sand now, Maryland will be there.”

While the petition drive was launched in Ocean City, which likely stands to gain the most from the change, Franchot said the benefits would be reaped across the state.

“We’re here in Ocean City, but this is an issue for all of Maryland,” he said. “Out in Western Maryland, Deep Creek Lake is facing the same problem. And how about them O’s? How exciting is it going to be as they continue to push for the pennant, but who is going to be able to take their kids to a game during the week in late August when the next day is a school day?”

Franchot said the 10,000 signature petition drive would be delivered to state lawmakers still skeptical about the change.

“We’re going to take 10,000 reasons for doing this to the General Assembly,” he said. “This is traditional. It’s common sense and it doesn’t cost a penny. All it does is generate revenue for a struggling economy and guarantee families will get to enjoy those last few weeks of summer.”

Mathias said he was ready to continue the momentum to affect the change.

“We are absolutely ready to let summer be summer,” he said. “You gave me a job to do and I’m ready to take 10,000 signatures to the General Assembly. This is going to take bringing people to the table and I’m ready to deliver.”

Ocean City businessman and hotelier G. Hale Harrison, who served on the task force, voiced concerns over the summer season getting cut shorter ever year.

“Our livelihoods here depend on summer,” he said. “We’re worried about that getting whittled away. We can’t have what we have here without summer and we need to protect summer vacation from slipping away.”