Despite lobbying by tourism industry, districts support calendar change
If officials in the Cedar Grove-Belgium School District and other local districts had their way, school would start before Labor Day and finish up by the end of May.
If representatives from the tourism and restaurant industry in the state continue to have their way, school will never start that early.
The September start was originally put into effect because many students had farming duties that kept them busy through August.
Now, it’s because the summer months are the biggest tourist draws throughout the state. In 2012, visitors spent more than $3.3 billion between July and September, $600 million more than they did between April and June, according to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin (TFW).
“We were told that July and August are the biggest tourism months and even if we passed a referendum in the community, the petition would most likely be denied,” Supt. Steve Shaw said. “I always thought June was the biggest month for traveling because I liked to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible after the school year ended.”
Areas like the Wisconsin Dells and Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake see the majority of business in summer and an earlier school start date would take a cut out of that trade, Shaw said.
Under current law passed in 2000, schools can’t open any earlier than Sept. 1.
A proposal to repeal the law was circulated by Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) last June. A similar attempt to change the law was made in 2007 and went nowhere.
The proposed bill would simply allow school districts to decide when they want to start school.
Shaw said one of the benefits of an earlier start would be getting out of school earlier and letting students get a jump on summer jobs.
“By the time we get through February, March and April, the kids and teachers want out in the worst way,” he said. “We see a benefit in having them start a little earlier so the kids can get out earlier.”
Tourism and restaurant representatives argue that they rely on the same high school workers to fill shifts during busy summer months.
A document from the TFW argues that a consistent start date remains in the “best interest of the state.”
The TFW said families often choose mid-late August as a time to vacation because the “good weather and warm water make it an ideal time in the state.
“It is a reality of modern family life that the last two weeks of August may present the one-and-only opportunity for families to spend quality time together during a planned-for getaway.”
Students who participate in fall sports like football, cross country and volleyball are already in the school at the beginning of August.
The majority of schools in Illinois, for example, started Aug. 26 this year.
In Wisconsin, the school year started on Sept. 3.
Shaw said local legislators are in favor of pushing back the start date and districts are allowed to petition the Department of Public Instruction to get a waiver to start earlier.
Sheboygan, Plymouth, Random Lake and even Elkhart Lake administrators have expressed support for an earlier starting date, Shaw said.
Local districts have petitioned for a waiver in the past, Shaw said, but have been denied.
Another driving force for the early start date is to give students more time in the classroom before national tests like Advanced Placement, ACT and the Smarter Balanced Assessment (formerly WKCE) are given later in the year.
“The administrators in the area want local control over setting the start dates,” Shaw said. “This year we had two or three football games before we even started school. A lot of kids are already here well before school begins.”
He estimated that even if a law was passed, it would take two years or longer to make a change.
“We have to have our calendars for the next school year done early, but there is support from just about everyone in the area,” Shaw said. “We’re all on the same page on this one.”
The next step is to have lobbyists call on the state to make a change. Shaw said John Forester, director of government relations for the state School Administration Alliance, will try to petition legislators to take up the issue sometime in 2014.
For now, it’s just wait and see, Shaw said.
“I haven’t heard from a lot of people in other areas of the state, but the people in our area are pretty fired up about getting something done,” he said.