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Ending link of school start date to Labor Day may not change calendars

Pasco school chief Kurt Browning wants the law changed.
Pasco school chief Kurt Browning wants the law changed.
Published Mar. 22, 2015

Soon after seeing the 2015 calendar, Florida school leaders knew they had a problem.

Labor Day falls on Sept. 7, in the second week of the month. And because of the 2006 state law barring schools from starting classes any earlier than two weeks before the holiday, completing a full semester before winter break would be all but impossible.

District officials began clamoring last fall for more leeway on when they could begin classes.

"I would suggest that the start date not be tied to Labor Day but allow that districts cannot start the school year earlier than the beginning of the third week in August … or whatever," Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning wrote in a letter urging the Florida superintendents association to lobby for a change.

Now, lawmakers in Tallahassee are poised to act. But will those who pushed for this flexibility take advantage of it?

It's looking unlikely.

With thousands of Florida families having already planned their lives around school calendars published months ago, officials are reluctant to make changes now.

"We want to give due deference to parents," Browning said.

Other related factors come into play, too.

In Miami-Dade, for instance, a wide variety of interest groups make calendar requests, forcing officials to create one well in advance. Classes are set to begin Aug. 24, with the first semester ending Jan. 22.

"We do not have an alternative calendar planned," district spokesman John Schuster said. "We're just sticking with it."

As it stands, the Florida Senate is considering a measure to let school start on the third Monday of August. The House has unanimously approved a bill allowing classes to begin Aug. 10.

"The districts wanted flexibility," said bill sponsor Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake. "We've given it to them."

The two chambers have until May to work out their differences. If they agree, Gov. Rick Scott would have a couple weeks more to sign the measure into law, which would take effect July 1.

The complication arises in that school districts end classes the first week of June, and most have set Aug. 24 — the earliest allowable date — as the first day of the 2015-16 academic year. Meanwhile, parents have been registering kids for summer camps and scheduling summer vacations.

Starting the school year a week or more earlier could disrupt those plans.

"I know I'm not in favor of doing that to our community," said Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook.

"We could put it on an agenda pretty quickly," Hernando schools spokesman Eric Williams said. "But we would need to know as soon as possible."

Such concerns have prompted some opposition to the legislative proposals.

Representatives from the tourism, hospitality and restaurant industries have spoken against the bills, suggesting a shorter summer could damage the economy. Some teachers, such as Jeff Melrose of Celebration K-8, have contended the change could hurt them, too.

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"I'm fighting for my family's income," said Melrose, who runs a Wisconsin camp in the summer.

Parent groups that complained back in 2006 about start dates as early as July have not resurfaced in large numbers. But the Texas-based Coalition for a Traditional School Year is stepping into the fight this time.

"Florida hasn't had a lot of opposition to the law in a long time," coalition spokeswoman Tina Bruno said. "Parents who fought the battle are out of the schools. We're helping to put together the arguments."

First, Bruno said, no studies show that having a break before semester exams matters. If students forget everything in two weeks, Melrose argued, "did they really learn it that well to begin with?"

Second, Bruno added, Florida law lets districts set their calendars by hours. That means a district can add about 22 minutes per class day and keep its semester intact before winter vacation, if it wishes, she said.

"Why haven't they used the tools they've already been given?" Bruno asked.

The Pinellas district will take advantage of that provision in 2015-16, altering middle and high school schedules slightly to get in the needed hours so they can end the first semester before Christmas. "We became very creative in order to make it happen," Cook said. "It will work."

Hillsborough County schools, by contrast, have for years held semester exams after students return in January, with few complaints.

The Hillsborough School Board did, however, deem its 2015-16 calendar tentative until a formal approval later in the spring. Other boards around the state, such as Palm Beach and Collier, adopted two calendars — one to meet the current law, and one in anticipation of a change.

As a result, Collier has informed parents that school could begin on Aug. 17 or 24, and end on June 7 or 14.

They'll find out after the legislative session.

Cook, who chairs the Florida School Boards Association legislative committee, recommended against that position because it puts families in flux. Some districts did it anyway, deciding it was best to be prepared.

Despite such complications, leaders said they support the change for the future. Detaching the school start date from a floating holiday is a needed step, said Browning.

"We have to strike while the iron is hot, when lawmakers could see the problems this causes," Cook added. "They never should have set what the date should be."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.