Sen. Chris Girdler hasn’t only been keeping busy in Frankfort with a certain fuel-related bill.
The Pulaski Countian in the Kentucky State Senate is also the sponsor of Senate Bill 129, which seeks to push back the start of school later into August.
The bill would require schools to schedule the first student attendance day no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26.
The bill allows an exception for schools that have adopted a year-round calendar and allows a waiver when a school has missed at least seven days each year for five previous years due to inclement weather.
Girdler introduced the bill on February 6, according to the Legislative Research Commission’s website (www.lrc.ky.gov).
While those of older generations may remember school start dates closer to Labor Day than the middle of summer, it hasn’t been that way in recent years. Local school districts have typically started early in August since instituting a “Fall Break” period prior to Thanksgiving over a decade ago; for instance, the school start date used by local districts for the current 2014-15 calendar was August 5.
Girdler, however, is looking at the calendar with an eye shaped by the unique opportunities presented by his home turf of Pulaski County and its calling card, Lake Cumberland.
“I feel the passage of this bill would have an enormous impact on tourism and economic development with no cost to the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Girdler said in a statement sent to the Commonwealth Journal.
“In my home region alone, we have witnessed a drastic difference at our water park, marinas and visitors’ centers once school begins in the early stages of August,” he continued. “Many of said tourist attractions rely heavily on part-time high school workers as a significant portion of their workforce.”
Locally, the SomerSplash Water Park is a popular attraction with seasonal access limitations. According to the summer 2015 schedule as listed on the www.cityofsomerset.com website, the park is open daily May through July — months when school is typically out of session — but is operating on a weekend-only schedule in August, and the first weekend of September.
No school in August could mean more days at the water park as well as on the lake and elsewhere, observed Steve Butcher, Pulaski County Schools Superintendent, who said he recently spoke to Girdler about the proposed legislation.
“The water park closes down when school starts,” said Butcher. “... (Girdler’s) endgame is tourism, so he’s looking out for the welfare of our community.”
Girdler also stated that another benefit to the legislation relates to the need of many owners of small family farms who rely on young people in school to aide in the harvest season.
“Additionally, there are higher energy costs associated with air conditioning schools during the hottest portion of the year as well as health concerns about students traveling on buses in mid-August,” according to Girdler.
Asking school officials about the bill produces a less enthusiastic reaction. Boyd Randolph, superintendent of Somerset Independent Schools, said that his district’s current schedule is “working pretty well for” not only Somerset but the whole county in a coordinated effort.
“Our current assessment and instruction calendar fits well with our academic model and it allows for breaks in the fall as well as a full Christmas and full Spring Break, which is good for families,” he said. “We’ve been able to align pretty close to the county in the past few years, which is good for family connections.”
As such, school officials would “have to look really hard at any changes,” said Randolph, and would have to work to juggle around the distribution of instructional days before and after Christmas break. “Any change in format, we’d have to look at carefully,” he said.
“With 175 days of instruction, it allows us to potentially have two-thirds of the first semester, then a (fall) break, then about five weeks or so before Christmas break, then a similar distribution in the spring,” he added. “The way the (state testing) assessment calendar works in the spring — every school district will be somewhat different in their flexibility to adapt to that — but we try to keep a calendar that reflects our instructional goals.”
Butcher echoed sentiments about the difficulty of a scheduling change.
“That would certainly be a big paradigm shift for us,” he said. “We’d have to look at Fall Break and Spring Break and adjust those accordingly. Certainly no one wants to be going to school in June.”
While Fall Break is a relatively new invention, Butcher said it’s one that nobody would want to lose.
“It’s one of the most popular breaks with parents. You can go down to Florida or other locations and it’s not too crowded,” he said. “Fall Break is actually more popular than Spring Break for a lot of people. It would be real tough to take it away from people who have gotten used to it.”
Butcher said that there has been a lot of “pushback” on the bill from other school districts around the state — many of which don’t have the tourism industry that Pulaski County does — who don’t want to alter the way they do things.
Girdler said that “(w)hile there may be some objection from various school administrators, they still have a window that allows for local decision making authority as well as room to move around inclement weather and testing dates. One example would provide local school boards the ability to alter the calendar in other ways to compensate for an earlier school starting time by giving up their fall break.”
While Butcher observes that approval of the bill would make for a “tremendous change,” he did note that he could see the economic advantages that Girdler proposed as well.
“We like our schedule the way it is now, but a part of me wants to do what’s best for our economic development in Pulaski County as well,” said Butcher. “If it were for the good of the whole community, we’d make it work.”