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New bill would repeal Sept. 1 start date mandate for Wisc. schools

Earlier this year, Wisconsin state Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) and state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) began circulating a bill draft (LRB 1378) to repeal the Sept. 1 start date mandate for schools in Wisconsin. The bill would allow local school boards to determine the start date for the fall semester beginning in the 2018-19 school year.

"It is pretty early on in the process and isn't close to coming to a vote," said 29th Assembly District Rep. Rob Stafsholt. "The bill has been introduced and was passed around for co-sponsorship before being sent to the education committee. It is not scheduled for a hearing yet for the education committee, but when that happens there will be a public hearing and shortly thereafter the education committee will have an executive session and that is when they will vote for it to go in or out of committee. At that time, it would come forward to us as legislators and we would discuss it as a group."

If the bill gets to committee, it could go through a series of changes. The committee vets the bill and when it comes out, everything has bared down to the essentials.

"I am in favor of the proposal to repeal the mandatory Sept. 1 state date for schools. I have been contacted by at least 10 school superintendents and members of several school boards requesting this change," said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma). "They asked for the flexibility to decide on their start dates because it gives them the ability to choose what is best for their unique school district. The Legislature passed a bill that eliminated the 180-day requirement to give school districts flexibility. I believe it should be up to each individual school district to pick the start time that will best fit the district's educational needs."

Under current law, public schools cannot begin fall classes before Sept. 1. The bill would allow local school boards to determine start dates for the fall semester. It would not require districts to begin school before Sept. 1, nor will it affect the number of days schools are in session.

Unlike Vinehout, Stafsholt, as a new legislator, is still in the process of figuring out what would be best for his constituents by talking with district administrators and school boards in his area.

"It is really early on in the process, so I'm just focusing on listening to both sides of the argument from my constituents, so I don't have a lock solid opinion as to where that lands," Stafsholt said. "Making decisions on our children based on a tourism industry, is probably not my first priority. My first priority is to make sure it is best for our children, but if that involves a summer job that affects tourism that is something to be considered. But I'm more concerned with my constituents and the children first."

Although Stafsholt is undecided as a legislator on the topic, his opinions as the parent of a school aged child are well formed.

"I like to believe, and I think it is true, is that summer vacation is not just a time to have fun and be on vacation. Some of the things that you learn and do while being on vacation are very valuable," Stafsholt said. "I think it is not just time to spend with family, but it is also time to learn some really good life lessons and is the time when kids get their first summer jobs. I want to make sure we have time for all those kind of things."

Sept. 1 start date mandate

Beginning in 2000, Wisconsin state law required that no public school could begin until or after Sept. 1, with the exception of public schools whose terms run year-round. The law allows school districts to petition the state to start earlier than Sept. 1.

"This was a perpetual bill that was introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature. For numerous sessions it never passed, but as is often the case, persistence pays off," said New Richmond Area Chamber Executive Director Rob Kreibich, who was a Wisconsin State Representative from 1993-2007. "My recollection is this was called a 'compromise' because the original proposal was for a post-Labor Day school start, and the bill ended up being post Sept. 1 start. I think the session it passed the measure was included in the state budget, which is an up or down vote and the one bill that must pass a legislative session."

As a general rule, Kreibich supported local control and represented an area that wasn't demanding the school start date be after Sept. 1

"Most of the push for it came from the Wisconsin Dells, Door County, Hayward, Minocqua areas of Wisconsin. I represented an urban district in Eau Claire, so that was not my constituency lobbying for this. If I did vote for it, it would have been part of a compromise that the parties agreed to — again, the original bill would have mandated a post-Labor Day start — or as a provision tucked in a state budget."

All these years later, Kreibich's views on the subject haven't changed, but now, as the NR Area Chamber Director, his perspective has changed.

"I think with hindsight of a decade, lawmakers have heard from school districts, parents and others that mandating a school calendar creates problems for school districts, tying their hands and creating issues like we have seen here in New Richmond, with shortened spring breaks, shortened Christmas breaks, and other calendar-related issues," Kreibich said. "In addition, the intent of this legislation was to ensure summer help worked through the tourism season, and now workforce issues are year-round problems for all employers, not just those in the tourism industry.

"One size doesn't fit all, and that is certainly the case with the school calendar."

School districts

For many school districts, giving back control of the start date for the school year would mean more flexibility when it comes to the school calendar and how it is developed.

"As a district, we are in favor of local control," said New Richmond District Administrator Patrick Olson. "Different areas of the state are affected in different ways and with local control our elected officials can make the decision based on what is best for our students, parents, staff, and community."

Having flexibility in the school calendar would mean districts could have a spring break every year, rather than having one every other year, as is New Richmond's case. It would also allow districts to schedule other breaks throughout the school year, to end the school year in May, leave all of June for extended summer school and professional development for teachers and provide more instructional time for students prior to taking statewide assessments, including the Forward Exam, the ACT and Advanced Placement tests.

"We often hear that families and students want to be out of school as early in June as possible," Ellsworth Community School District Barry Cain said. "This can become difficult in some years based on how the calendar falls to allow for various holidays, spring break, summer school, etc."

Prescott Superintendent Dr. Rick Spicuzza echoed his colleagues.

"Commonly, we hear it in years like this one and next year when Labor Day is on Sept. 5," he said of parent complaints. "It's hard to hold school for two days and then take a three-day holiday. It compresses the rest of the calendar and puts a premium on identifying a suitable end of school year date that does not go too far into June."

For St. Croix Central, the bill's passing would allow the district to start school two weeks earlier and end two weeks sooner, which would better align high school student schedules with fall athletics and AP tests, said Superintendent Tim Widiker.

"I did a parent survey and had 256 responses. Of all that responded, 62 percent were in favor of starting two weeks earlier and 38 percent were not," Widiker said. "From reading the comments, the respondents that were in favor of starting earlier cited the reasons I already mentioned....fall athletics and AP testing....I believe some misunderstood the survey question and said that they didn't want a shorter summer vacation because time with family was very valuable."

Elmwood School District Superintendent Paul Blanford wrote about the topic in a recent newsletter.

"For Elmwood this change would afford several significant benefits; starting earlier would align better with college and university schedules; provide additional instruction time prior to local and state assessments; and provide more flexibility into our school calendar for addressing snow days; and this would allow for inserting full professional development days for staff.

Plum City Superintendent Dr. Ron Walsh said a few years ago, the state changed the rules requiring a certain amount of days (180) to a specified number of instructional hours. This allows Plum City to start on or after Sept. 1 and still get out before Memorial Day. However, again, he favors local control.

"The state is heavily influenced by special interest groups that have pushed for a later start date to promote tourism for their businesses," Walsh said.

Spring Valley Superintendent Dr. Donald Haack said having the option to start earlier doesn't mean his district necessarily would always. But they'd have the option.

"Next school year (2017-18), Sept. 1 is on a Friday," Haack said. "We decided it was not in the best interest of our students to start school on a Friday, so the first day of school for students will not be until Sept. 5, 2017. Given the option of starting earlier, we may have decided to start school prior to our third varsity football game of the season or three volleyball matches or two cross country meets."

Hudson School District Communications and Community Services Coordinator Tracy Habisch-Ahlin said Hudson is in a unique situation this year given the massive construction project the district is going through at multiple buildings, specifically the high school. In order to complete the project as quickly as possible, the district petitioned the state to give them a later start date next year to allow more work to be done on the project.

"With the construction going on at all of our schools we had to go to the state to petition a change to our start date for next school year, which we wouldn't have had to do if the schools had the power to decide when they wanted to start," Habisch-Ahlin said. "Our community knew that we were going to need to push back our start date, but we still went out to them to talk about it and get their input."

The River Fall School District felt so strongly about the topic, the school board unanimously passed a resolution supporting a repeal, as did Elmwood and Spring Valley.

Chambers

Many area chambers of commerce support school districts having control over their start dates.

Kreibich wrote to lawmakers, stating "The New Richmond Chamber Board and staff don't normally take positions on state legislation, but we are making an exception in the case of an issue that impacts every one of our chamber members who have children attending public schools...

"A 'one size fits all' statewide mandate has created a less than ideal school year which includes shortened Christmas breaks, eliminated spring breaks in some years, and pushed school well into June."

Somerset Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beckah Whitlock said she's not sure a change in the law would affect Somerset too much, as "he bulk of Somerset's current tourism industry seems to stem from activities located on the Apple River; camping, tubing, concerts, etc. Those businesses typically cater to the 18 to 21-plus crowd."

The Prescott Chamber voted unanimously to support local school district control of school start dates recently.

"We trust that our local school board are best suited to know and honor the local traditions and culture of our community," a statement read.

Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau president Blake Fry can see both sides of the argument, but said the chamber and tourism bureau is not taking an official stance on the issue.

"For seasonal tourist destinations such as the Wisconsin Dells and lake communities up north, an earlier start date could have a serious effect on their local economy. At the same time, educators at the local level will have a better sense of what the appropriate dates for the school year are," Fry said. " I have spoken with some of our retail and restaurant members and they do not feel this will make a difference to their business. For our lodging members, the big question is whether or not families will change their annual travel plans to take trips at the beginning of the summer instead of at the end."

Fry also said that the chamber has worked hard to market Hudson as a year-round travel destination, which has made the current law less of a benefit in Hudson than in other more seasonal tourist destinations in the state.

"The biggest effect an earlier start date would have on our area is the ability of families to attend the Minnesota State Fair on weekdays," Fry said.

The River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau supporst its local school board.

"I don't believe the mandatory start date has provided a benefit or detriment to our members/tourism. Unlike areas that heavily rely on tourism during the fall, River Falls is a beautiful community with a plethora of opportunities to visit year-round," said IOM, CEO of the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau Chris Blasius.

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