While some Minnesota schools are openly petitioning to begin their school years before Labor Day, others have been waiting quietly on the sidelines for more than half a decade now, waiting for legislators to overturn a bill that interferes with their ability to make what they say is one very crucial decision — what day school should start.
St. Peter Superintendent Jeffrey Olson says it has turned into the ultimate waiting game.
“It’s become a dead issue,” Olson said. “As far as I know it’s not going anywhere this year.”
Other school districts have taken a more active stance. In Northfield a March 7 public meeting regarding school calendar options drew between 30 and 40 parents, staff and community to the high school to protest starting school before Labor Day.
Edina parents are fighting a similar battle, arguing that starting school in August would infringe and family time and interfere with vacation plans.
But Olson said there’s little point in arguing the pros and cons, saying that the current statute leaves very little room for negotiation and there are few options for small school districts like St. Peter’s when it comes to getting a jump start on the year’s learning.
Minnesota is one of three states that have mandates that prevent school from starting before Labor Day. Three states mandate a starting date of Sept. 1 — Wisconsin, Iowa and North Carolina. Florida starts 14 days before Labor Day, Texas starts the fourth Monday of August, South Carolina starts the third week of August and Arkansas starts Aug. 19.
The Minnesota Legislature first prohibited schools from starting before Labor Day in 1985 but the law was relaxed in 1997 to accommodate years with later Labor Days. In 1998, pre-Labor Day starts were allowed as long as the first day of school was Sept. 1 or later. In 2005, the post-Labor Day mandate was re-enacted.
To be granted an exemption from the post-Labor Day start, a district has to submit a waiver to the state’s commissioner of education arguing that for learning-related reasons it needs to have a four-day school week or an earlier start to leave more time for spring construction projects. Project costs must be $400,000 or more for the waiver application to be considered.
Alternatively, a district would need to have a series of community hearings and meetings to discuss calendar changes and then submit a detailed plan and related data proving that the community would benefit from an earlier start date.
In southwestern Minnesota, a group of 25 school districts has been granted a waiver to start earlier. But the group applied for waiver under a different state law which allows for “flexible learning year” programs and it was approved under the stipulation that it would not become a Labor Day law go-around.
“We do not plan on doing that,” Olson said. “And the commissioner has not granted many of those requests.”
The Le Sueur-Henderson School District has taken an approach similar to St. Peter’s, discussing the possibility of changing the calendar, but holding off on making any firm plans or asking for community input.
“If you look at our calender, we have used the same one for a long time,” Hanson said during a recent school board meeting. “We have the problem of finishing the semester after students get home from their break. If we started school earlier, it would also give us two weeks more to prepare for state testing. What we’re looking for is how we can use that time best for our students to learn the best and get the best instruction.”
A 2010 study published in “Education Next” shows that even days taken off for inclement weather can affect test scores negatively—this year both St. Peter and Le Sueur-Henderson school districts have had more than one snow day—and that increasing the number of instructional days before tests could improve performance.
It is a data-driven assumption that many Minnesota school boards are willing to bet on. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA), 72 percent of school districts stated that if they were given a choice they would start school before Labor Day.
Greg Abbot, MSBA Director of Communications said even though 28 percent of school districts said they wouldn’t change their schedules, they could still be in favor of the mandate being repealed.
“Those districts may be finishing up on building projects and can’t start early,” said Abbott. “Or their school boards and community may have decided that starting after Labor Day is best for their community. The point is – schools should be making that choice and education of children should come first.”
Opponents to the mandate’s repeal include 4-H advocates and tourism officials.
A 2012 study conducted by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center concluded that starting school before Labor Day decreases the chances by 50 percent that families will take a trip in August or September, and 30 percent across the summer.
But while many resort owners have argued that a shorter summer could have a negative impact on their businesses, Olson argued that the change would not substantially shorten the season, but shift it slightly.
State Fair organizers have also opposed the bill, claiming that participation by 4-H students would drop if schools were allowed to start in mid-august, around the same time the fair kicks off in the Twin Cities.
Lorna Luepke, Nicollet County’s University of Minnesota Extension Administrative and Program Assistant, said that 4-H students already starting school before Labor Day must decide to take the day off to attend the state fair or not attend.
But data collected by the MSBA from the 25 school districts in southwestern Minnesota already starting earlier show that the number of 4-H participants from that area have increased—there were 676 exhibitors in 2010—compared to 635 in 2009, a net gain of 41 or approximately 6 percent.
All student absences across the 25 school districts related to state fair trips were designated as excused. They received assignments ahead of time and were provided reasonable time to make up the missing work. School officials have confirmed that state fair trips would be also be excused. Similarly, all families who had late August family vacations were excused.
MSBA’s Abbot, said despite this promising data, the association feels that State Fair and tourism interest groups don’t belong in the discussion at all.
“We believe that local school boards and their communities are the best at making decisions about when school should start and the education of their kids,” said Abbott. “Not the State Fair, not the tourism industry.”
Olson agreed, claiming that the mandate did little more than build upon agrarian traditions and was not in the best interest of local students.
“It’s hard to change a long standing tradition,” Olson said. “But if a bill passed, I know our board would consider changing our calendar.”
Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies