School start sparks debate

By Greg Gelpi

With the school year increasingly encroaching on summer months, parents and politicians are waging efforts to reclaim the summer.

"I hear that the kids need this schedule to retain information, but Georgia is 49th in the country behind many states that have the fall schedule," Clayton County parent Mary Baker said. "If there is a petition to sign, I would be glad to be first."

With more than 500 phone calls, e-mails and letters from constituents, State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said he is pleased that there is debate about the issue. All but one of the comments from his "quite concerned" constituents favored pushing back the start of school to around Labor Day.

"Because of the bad air quality and heat, many people take vacation during this time," said Baker, who is from Oregon. "It is usually the hottest month and it costs more to cool the schools. Many times the school cannot let the kids go outside due to the air quality. This is very important since more and more kids have asthma."

She cited many of the same reasons that Wilkinson found while researching the issue.

"I began to do research on the situation and was absolutely shocked," Wilkinson said.

The early start date for school negatively impacts a county and the state economically, environmentally and educationally, he said.

Wilkinson said he will co-sponsor legislation that sets the start date close to Labor Day and that almost 60 legislators have contacted him to co-sponsor the bill for the coming legislative session. Regardless of the start date, students are required to attend 180 days of classes.

Billions of dollars of federal funding is lost for metro Atlanta because of poor air quality, Wilkinson said. With the addition of school buses and extra school commuters, the pollution doesn't help in August, which typically has the most pollution each year.

The start date also impacts vacations and tourism revenue, he said.

The heat also contributes to high air-conditioning bills for school systems already tight on money, Wilkinson said. A Tulsa, Okla., school system, saved $500,000 by changing the start date for school because of air-conditioning costs.

On the whole, $2.4 billion less is spent in the state, which means much less tax revenue for the state, he said.

The nation's top 10 states academically start school close to Labor Day and give mid-term exams after the winter break, Wilkinson said.

State Rep. Larry "Butch" Parrish, D-Swainsboro, introduced House Bill 390 last legislative session to set the start of school between the last Monday in August and the Wednesday after Labor Day. The legislation didn't make it out of committee, but he said the legislation would be reintroduced in the coming legislation session.

"A lot of folks in the tourism industry felt that cutting the break short you cut down on the tourism dollars," Parrish said.

Parrish represents part of Cobb County, which is home to Six Flags White Water.

Jack Warren, Clayton County schools administrative assistant for policy and legislation, said the Clayton County Board of Education adopts its school calendar two years out and hasn't discussed changing the existing calendar schedule.

"Right now our calendars are set and it would have to be something taken up by the board if they want to revisit it," Warren said.

The Clayton County school system switched to the earlier start for several reasons, he said, including efforts to coordinate calendars with colleges and universities and other metro Atlanta school systems.

An earlier start date allows high school students to complete work in December and begin college work in the spring, Warren said. Also, many college courses meant for teachers are designed around that schedule.

"The system we're currently using has had widespread support," he said, adding that school boards have the constitutional rights to set the school calendars.