OCEAN CITY – As predicted, a Senate committee this week approved legislation which could derail the mandate for a post-Labor Day school start, but Gov. Larry Hogan quickly fired back with a promise for a referendum if the bill is ultimately passed.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee passed Senate Bill 128 with a 7-4 vote. The bill, among other things, would allow each school district in Maryland to set their start and end dates and, if approved, would reverse a 2016 executive order by Hogan mandating a post-Labor Day start to the school year for public schools in the state.
By Thursday morning, Hogan fired back with a vow to submit legislation that would send the post-Labor Day school start issue back to the residents of Maryland with a referendum on a future state election ballot. Hogan’s strongly-worded speech admonished certain legislators and what he characterized as political activists and special interest groups for going against the will of the people of Maryland with their latest attempts to reverse his executive order mandating a post-Labor Day school start.
“Sadly, this common-sense initiative is now being threatened by out-of-touch politicians and paid political operatives,” he said. “Inexplicably, they are attempting to reverse this policy, but we simply cannot and will not allow misguided and misinformed legislators and special interest groups to turn back the clock and ignore the will of the people of Maryland.”
With the committee’s passage of the legislation on Wednesday, it appears Senate Bill 128 along with the similar Senate Bill 131 would likely have the votes needed in the full General Assembly to reverse Hogan’s executive order handed down in 2016. On Thursday morning, Hogan handed down a three-part plan to uphold his executive order should the legislation pass as expected. For one, he promised to immediately submit legislation that would codify the executive order and return the school start date decision to the voters in each jurisdiction around the state.
“Any local system that attempts to evade the law and start school before Labor Day would be required to put that decision on the ballot for the voters of that jurisdiction to decide for themselves,” he said.
Perhaps most importantly, Hogan promised a statewide referendum if the pair of Senate bills ultimately reverses his school start mandate and all but ensured victory if the issue is put to the voters across Maryland.
“Let me also be clear,” he said. “If their bill passes without giving local citizens control, there will be a petition to referendum. It will get the required number of signatures from one corner of the state to the other. It will be placed on the ballot and there is a 100-percent chance that the voters will overturn any action by the legislature with more than 70 percent of the vote and school after Labor Day will remain the law in this state.”
In either case, Hogan promised public schools would continue to start after Labor Day despite the outcome of the pair of bills now heading to the full Senate.
“Regardless of what action the legislature attempts to take, they will fail,” he said. “Marylanders will have the deciding vote on this one way or another, and there is absolutely no question about where Marylanders stand on this issue.”
Hogan pointed out the post-Labor Day initiative had the strong support of the legislature in the past, a strong recommendation from the task force appointed to study the issue and ultimately the citizens of Maryland. Several polls conducted over the years show an overwhelming majority of Marylanders support the post-Labor Day school start.
“We’ve taken a lot of action in four years, but I can’t think of any other action that has had such widespread, enthusiastic support,” he said. “We cannot and will not allow this misguided legislation and special interest groups turn back the clock and ignore the will of the people.”
Even before the Senate committee passed the legislation on Wednesday, it appeared the writing was already on the wall for the pair of bills.
At the close of Monday’s regular Mayor and Council meeting, Meehan briefed his colleagues on last week’s testimony and said it appeared the deck was stacked against the town and its opposition to the bill because one of its primary sponsors chaired the very committee in which it was heard. By Wednesday afternoon, the mayor’s prediction came true when the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee voted 7-4 to approve the bill and advance it to a vote before the full Senate. Meehan pointed out on Monday Senate Bill 128 was introduced by Senator Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and Senator Nancy King (D-Montgomery). While he stopped short of suggesting Pinsky was forcing the bill through the committee, Meehan did indicate it would likely pass.
“It was before a committee chaired by Senator Pinsky, who is an honorable senator and does a great job representing the state, but we have a difference of opinion on this particular topic,” he said. “He not only sponsors the bill, but presented the bill, testified on its behalf and moderated the conversation. They didn’t have a time clock as they typically do because he brought in a lot of educators to testify in favor of the legislation, so we were teed up a little bit. I don’t think we’re going to prevail in this particular instance, but there is another hearing on Feb. 14 and we will bring a large contingent to articulate our position.”
From the beginning several years ago, Ocean City has been at the forefront of the issue, beginning several years ago when Comptroller Peter Franchot announced his “Let Summer Be Summer” initiative and launched a petition drive from the Boardwalk. When Hogan announced the executive order in 2016, he made it from practically the same spot on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
From the outset of his testimony on at the committee hearing on Senate Bill 128 last week, Pinsky couched the debate as largely political.
“We’ve had a proud history in this state of ensuring politics does not trump education policy,” he said. “The governor has said this is all about the kids. This bill does not prohibit a start date after Labor Day. It is silent on when school should begin.”
Instead, Pinsky pointed out the bill as written does not preclude individual school districts from starting after Labor Day, it only gives them a choice. Senator Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) testified in opposition to the legislation that would reverse Hogan’s mandate for a post-Labor Day school start and pointed out there are far more weighty education issues facing state lawmakers than the start of the school year.
“With all of the pressing issues we have on our plate right now, I don’t know why you would consider discarding the bi-partisan work done by the task force and are focusing on this issue at this time,” said Carozza, who voted against the bill in committee.
For his part, Meehan’s testimony included a story he has retold about walking out on the beach in late August before the post-Labor Day mandate was in place and finding 23 families participating in a sand castle-building contest and only one of those families was from Maryland.
“This year, when you go around Ocean City during that week before Labor Day, you see what you haven’t seen a lot in the past,” he said. “You see a lot more Maryland license plates. We had a campaign last year to invite Marylanders back to Ocean City and they came.”
While the post-Labor Day mandate has been couched as a family-friendly initiative, there is an obvious economic benefit, a point not lost on Meehan when he testified last week.
“Ocean City represents 59 percent of the tax base in Worcester County,” he said. “It is because of Ocean City that in the last 10 years, we’ve built two new high schools and are getting ready to build a new elementary school. This couldn’t be done without Ocean City. I don’t see any compelling reason why this shouldn’t continue because it’s been extremely successful.”