Legislators Discuss Failed Post-Labor Day School Bill; New Strategy Needed After Effort Called ‘A Very Heavy Lift’

Legislators Discuss Failed Post-Labor Day School Bill; New Strategy Needed After Effort Called ‘A Very Heavy Lift’
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OCEAN CITY — Despite failing to even get a committee hearing in either the Senate or the House, the bid for a state-mandated post-Labor Day start to the school year will continue.

At the Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting this week, Lower Shore legislators briefed resort business leaders on a variety of issues germane to the local area during the 2015 session including a proposed state-mandated post-Labor Day start to the public school year. The bills, cross-filed in the House by Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) and Senate by Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), never got any traction during the session and failed to come before a committee vote in either chamber.

Disheartened but not dissuaded, the two Lower Shore legislators told the EDC this week 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.

In 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 had not had so much as a committee hearing in their respective chambers and the legislation died a quiet death, at least for the 2015 session. Shortly after the session, Mathias said the bill is complicated and could take two or more sessions to gain the approval of state lawmakers. He likened the measure to casino gambling or offshore wind, which took more than one session to finally gain approval.

In 2013, state lawmakers approved legislation creating a task force to study the issue and that task force ultimately returned a favorable recommendation to the General Assembly. However, the task force’s approval came too late to get legislation introduced in 2014. Franchot then rallied with the petition drive in advance of the 2015 session and appeared to have some momentum at the start. Essentially, with the creation of a task force in 2013, followed by the failed attempt in 2015, the third year might be the charm.

Despite the failed attempt this year, Mathias said there could be something to work with going forward.

“There’s a success story in that bill still to be told,” he said. “Maybe the answer is not Labor Day. Maybe it’s Sept. 1, but there is a solution to this.”

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.

“Worcester County schools are starting after Labor Day for the second straight year this year,” said Mathias. “Maybe that’s the model for how it can be done.”

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. For her part, Carozza said it was an uphill battle in the first year and said the proposal will likely need tweaking before next year.

“I really believe we’re going to need a strategy,” she said. “We were really outnumbered on this in the legislature. We need a strategy to show a statewide benefit and that this is not just something for Ocean City. It is a very heavy lift.”

Meehan was also a strong advocate for the legislation and on Tuesday told the EDC the effort would continue and would likely rely on a positive approach.

“Let’s figure out how we can do this and not focus on why we can’t,” he said.

At the close of the session, Franchot hinted at possibly seeking a fiat of sorts from the governor in the form of an executive order for a post-Labor Day school start, but that hasn’t come to fruition. Meanwhile, Mathias said after the session the bill will likely be reintroduced next year.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Regardless, I want to make sure I keep the lines of communication open and nurture the relationships with all of the stakeholders. We have to keep everybody in place and engaged. We have very good stakeholders in this, and we’re working diligently with all of the parties involved to keep everybody at the table.”