By Destiny Shelton
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginia law generally bars schools from opening before Labor Day. But legislation signed last week by Gov. Bob McDonnell chips away at that prohibition – an issue of intense debate during the General Assembly’s recent session.
On Wednesday, McDonnell signed into law House Bill 1483, which allows a school district to start classes before Labor Day if it is surrounded by another district that already has a waiver to begin school early.
That’s a pretty narrow exception: Republican Delegate William Cleaveland, who proposed the bill, tailored it for the city of Roanoke, which he represents.
Even so, the measure triggered heated arguments in the House (which passed the bill on votes of 72-26 and 68-22) and in the Senate (which approved the measure, 22-18).
While McDonnell’s signature settles the fate of HB 1483 – it will take effect July 1 – the issue is likely to resurface in future legislative session.
That issue is whether Virginia should continue to adhere to what some call the “Kings Dominion law” – a statute prohibiting public schools from opening before Labor Day unless they get a waiver from the Virginia Board of Education. The tourism industry, including theme parks such as Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens, strongly supports the current law, which ensures that teenagers are available to work until Labor Day.
A school division can open before Labor Day if it can show “good cause.” Under existing law, the state will give a waiver to a division that “has been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failures, or other emergency situations.”
HB 1483 adds another definition of “good cause.” It will provide a waiver if “a school division is entirely surrounded by a school division that has an opening date prior to Labor Day in the school year for which the waiver is sought. Such school division may open schools on the same opening date as the surrounding school division.”
The measure will allow schools in the Roanoke Valley, where winter brings a lot of snow, to adopt identical academic calendars. When there is heavy snow, the Roanoke County school system often closes. So the county schools have received a waiver to start classes before Labor Day. Last fall, the county’s 14,600 students started school on Aug. 23; for the coming school year, they’ll start Aug. 22.
But the Roanoke city schools usually stay open when it snows – in order to feed low-income children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. More than two-thirds of the city’s 13,000 students qualify for such lunches, Cleaveland told his House colleagues in urging passage of HB 1483.
Because it keeps its schools open, “Roanoke city … has not been able to gain a waiver on snow days,” he said. As a result, the city’s schools start classes the day after Labor Day – which last fall was Sept. 7.
Under HB 1483, the Roanoke city schools will be able to get a waiver as the Roanoke County schools do – so both school divisions can start their 2011-12 classes on Aug. 22. (Schools in the neighboring city of Salem, which currently start after Labor Day, also will automatically qualify for a waiver under the new law.)
For some legislators, this is a no-brainer. They say local school boards should be free to begin classes on whatever date works best for their community.
“I wish we could do this statewide,” said Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. She noted that surrounding states start classes before Labor Day. As a result, students in those states “have two weeks more instruction” than Virginia students when taking college entrance exams and other standardized tests.
Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, said it’s wrong to prohibit schools from opening before Labor Day. “What kind of message are we sending if selling cotton candy at Kings Dominion is more important than schools?”
But opponents of HB 1483 said it would hurt tourism – which in turn would hurt tax revenues earmarked for schools.
Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, cited a study conducted by the tourism industry. He said the study indicated that if schools open before Labor Day, shortening the tourism season, this would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We are beginning to lose a fair amount of revenue” as school districts get waivers to start classes before Labor Day, said Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield. He said that if waiver proponents really want to improve education, the solution is to increase Virginia’s mandatory 180-day school year to 200 days or more.
HB 1483 drew opposition from legislators representing tourism-dependent areas, such as Delegate Salvatore Iaquinto, R-Virginia Beach, and Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg.
McClellan questioned the validity of the industry study that predicted massive losses in tourism revenues if schools begin before Labor Day. One idea is for the General Assembly to conduct its own study. That’s what Delegate Adam Ebbin, D-Arlington, proposed in House Joint Resolution 620. It would have directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to “evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of pre- and post Labor Day opening of public schools in Virginia, including the effect on instruction, student achievement, student preparation for national standardized examinations, the tourism industry, state revenues derived from post-Labor Day school opening, and disruption of end-of-summer family vacations.”
Ebbin’s resolution died in the House Rules Committee.
The General Assembly this session considered five other bills letting schools start before Labor Day. They all died in the House Education Committee. The bills were:
- HB 1433, by Delegate Thomas “Tag” Greason, R-Potomac Falls. It would have made “local school boards responsible for setting the school calendar and determining the opening of the school year,” eliminating the post-Labor Day requirement entirely.
- HB 1480, by Cleaveland, explicitly authorizing the Roanoke city schools to start classes two weeks before Labor Day.
- HB 1537, by Delegate Donald Merricks, R-Chatham, allowing schools in Danville, Martinsville, Henry County and Pittsylvania County to start before Labor Day.
- HB 1543, by Delegate Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, letting the Virginia Board of Education waive the post-Labor Day requirement “for any reason deemed reasonable by the Board.”
- HB 2008, by Delegate James LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, allowing “local school divisions to set the school calendar so that the first day students are required to attend must be no earlier than the fourth Monday in August.”
Sen. Ralph K. Smith, R-Roanoke, co-sponsored HB 1483 with Cleaveland. He said Cleaveland introduced both measures so he could test which would be more likely to pass and achieve the goal of allowing Roanoke Valley students to start before Labor Day.
“HB 1483 was the better approach, and we worked very hard to get it advanced,” Smith said. He said the new law will “alleviate some of the difficulties that exist in coordinating joint programs between Roanoke city and Roanoke County, like the Governor’s School.”
Smith said he has consistently supported giving local school districts the option to start classes before Labor Day. Eventually, the General Assembly must address this statewide issue, LeMunyon said.
“Somehow, we’ve got to find a way to find a way to support tourism and education and get out of this crazy either-or choice,” LeMunyon said.