Later school start draws dirty looks; Districts want to set own calendars

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Attention, amusement park owners: Expect a lot more late-summer business next year than you’re used to.

The Legislature is poised to push the start of school back a few weeks each fall, freeing up more time for late-summer beachcombing and trips to the Grand Canyon.

But many school administrators say they and not the state should decide when school starts.

“If districts determine that what’s best for their students is to start on a certain day, they should be able to make that decision,” Arlington Independent School District Superintendent Mac Bernd said.

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of a bill, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, that would ban schools from starting classes before the week in which Aug. 21 falls unless they receive a state waiver. If signed by Gov. Rick Perry, the law would take effect in 2002.

“Not one of the senators on the floor today started school before Labor Day, and we all turned out fine,” Mr. Lucio said.

Since 1991, when a law requiring a start date no earlier than the week of Sept. 1 was repealed, districts have been able to determine for themselves when the school year starts and ends. Since then, start dates have crept earlier, from early September to mid- or even early August.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area last year, the latest that any school district opened for classes was Aug. 21. Two districts, Plano and Allen, started classes Aug. 3.

Anticipating TAAS

Districts have had a variety of motivations for the shift, including the desire to get in as many instruction days as possible before the spring administration of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Some also have created more one- or two-day holidays during the fall semester.

Earlier school starts have caused problems for some businesses that rely on the open summer schedules of children. Tourist destinations have reported decreased late-summer revenues and have sometimes had to cut back their summer schedules as their teenage employees go back to school.

A December report from the state comptroller’s office estimated that the earlier starts cost the Texas tourism industry $332 million annually.

Schools’ reasons

But several local school leaders say they have reasons for starting school when they do, and the state shouldn’t interfere.

“The calendar ought to be driven first by issues of teaching and learning, not the workforce needs of business and industry,” Dr. Bernd said.

Steve Knagg, who heads the committee that determines the Garland school district’s annual calendar, said the district might have to eliminate several fall holidays. Garland is set to begin school this year on Aug. 13. First to go might be the weeklong Thanksgiving holiday, which would probably be cut to just Thursday and Friday.

“Anytime you take away holidays, you’re going to up the stress level a bit,” Mr. Knagg said. “It’s marvelous to have that time off at Thanksgiving, but we’ve been saying for a while, ‘Enjoy it now, because it probably won’t be around forever.'”

Some officials said their districts might have to end the fall semester after Christmas. “It’s going to be difficult to get 18 weeks of school into that fall semester if you start later,” said Doug Zambiasi, Frisco’s assistant superintendent for administrative services.

Plano Superintendent Doug Otto said his district probably would eliminate its weeklong fall break and push fall semester exams until after Christmas.

Waivers tough to get

The House version of the bill allows districts to apply to the Texas Education Agency for a waiver that would allow them to start classes earlier. But such requests would be limited by stringent standards. Districts would have to take out newspaper ads announcing their intention to seek a waiver and hold public hearings.

“It looks like getting a presidential pardon,” Mr. Zambiasi said.

Texas teachers tend to be split on early start dates, according to Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. Elementary school teachers tend to support a later start, she said, while high school teachers want to start earlier to finish the first semester before Christmas.

On Wednesday, the House sent the measure back to the Senate with the waiver provision it had attached. Senators now must vote to accept the changes or send the bill to a conference committee. Mr. Lucio said he is “very, very strongly” leaning toward accepting the waiver provision. If he does, a majority vote in the Senate would send the bill to the governor.

Vacation flexibility

Some parents said a later start would allow them to be more flexible in their summer vacation plans. Yolanda Hernandez, whose 6-year-old son, Hector, attends Highlands Elementary in Cedar Hill, said she wanted to take a lengthy trip last summer to visit relatives in Colorado.

“I wanted to stay for a few weeks to make the trip worthwhile,” she said. “But we had to get back early to start school [Aug. 14], so I figured it wasn’t worth it to go for just a short time.”

But other parents defended local control of the school calendar.

“Ideally, each district would get to set their own calendar based on the needs of their community,” said Lynette Williams, president of Mesquite’s council of PTAs. Ms. Williams said she’d prefer an earlier start – and the same goes for her youngest, Amy, who will be a senior this fall at Poteet High School.

“My daughter would rather start a little bit earlier and get out earlier, by Memorial Day,” she said. “But that’s not based on solid research. She just wants to get out sooner.”