School start date becomes a hot topic

A state senate study committee packed with representatives from the travel and tourism industries finished hearings last week, poking at the question of whether local school systems need the state’s and committee’s wisdom applied to figure out when to start fall classes.

The committee came together in an Atlanta Braves office in SunTrust Park — which is paid for in part with more than $400 million in public funds — to listen to the baseball organization testify about the deleterious effects on business of those August school starts. Teen employees lose jobs; fewer families come to see games. Other business representatives complained early starts cut into jobs and theme park attendance.

The stated purpose for the Committee on Evaluating the School Year Calendar in Public Schools reflects much about the lobbying power of business in Georgia and little about potential affects on academics, though it has listened to educators on issues such as test start dates and deleterious effects on learning caused by breaks. However, the resolution calling the committee together ticks off its reason for being: “Whereas the summer travel season is a prime revenue generator for the industry…the Georgia travel and hospitality industry is the state’s fifth largest employer,” and “…many tourism and hospitality companies hire full and part-time summer workers from Georgia high schools and colleges….” Therefore, somebody needs to think about some alternatives.

It mentions nothing about making students better.

Marietta City Schools board member Allison Gruehn, expressed disappointment in the dearth of educators on the committee. Her system picks four start dates, then polls teams of parents and employees for best one.

“But again, that is definitely a local decision, and individual school systems know what is best for individuals in their communities,” she said.

Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, is the only elected committee member with a stake in education as Vice Chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee.

He said in an interview there are good educational reasons for starting later. August can be terribly hot, driving up air-conditioning costs for schools and leaving students miserable and tired after bus rides. One school board member told him his district saved $300,000 in power bills by choosing to start several weeks later.

“I would rather hire teachers than pay utility bills,” he said.

Students learn work skills and earn more money with longer summer jobs. He said he is not committed yet to an answer, but those positives and more ought to be considered.

“When business does well, and students do well and we generate more tax income, that is more money we can spend on our students and teachers. It’s trying to find the right balance,” he said.

Randy Scamihorn, a Cobb County School Board member, said he has not heard any complaint in years or outcry for change from parents or teachers.

“What they are trying to accomplish is unmistakably from a business point of view,” Scamihorn said, noting he was not speaking for the board. “And they keep talking about giving employed students life skills to be had with summer jobs. But if our students don’t get a good education, they won’t have the fundamental skills to be able to successfully carry out those summer jobs.”

He’s disappointed with the Braves spiel. He said. “I wonder what they do for the necessary labor for preseason, which starts in March, to end of school, which is May?Then from August to the World Series, which is in late October? Are they suggesting we should dismiss class in March and restart in October for their benefit?”

The Braves have thrived in Cobb County. The owners reported in March revenue increased by $124 million in its first year there.

Scamihorn rode a hot school bus in the Florida panhandle as a child and survived. And schools need time before Christmas to finish teaching and get through an exam period, he said.

Local schools is where the decision to start school belongs, Scamihorn argues.

“It’s not a power grab for us. It’s being lawfully elected and being able to respond to local communities, and not a state dictatorship.”