Legislative update: School bill would fix start dates

By Justin Boron

Clayton and Henry County school system officials said they would oppose a legislative proposal to require schools throughout the state to start no earlier than Aug. 29.

A bill setting starting dates between Aug. 29 and Sept. 7 would inhibit the local jurisdiction's ability to set start dates suitable for the immediate community, officials for both systems said.

"This should be a locally controlled issue," said Charles White, director of Clayton County schools public affairs and community relations. "When we are starting is more convenient for us."

The bill was introduced in the General Assembly Wednesday by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City.

The issue surfaced last year during the legislative session, but amounted to little.

While it has been officially proposed this year, school systems across the state are expected to rigidly oppose the bill.

Barbara Pulliam, the superintendent for Clayton County Public Schools, asked the local delegation to oppose just as the session started in January.

Other school system officials have agreed.

"You can assume that school boards around the state will do everything they can to try to stop that bill from passing," said Curt Johnston, a member of the Cobb County school board.

If approved, the measure would apply to school starts this year and would change plans of many counties. Two counties in metro Atlanta, Henry and Cherokee, had planned to start the 2005-2006 school year on Aug. 1. Cobb planned to start Aug. 10.

Henry County, which began classes on Aug. 2 this year, made the determination to start earlier using a local survey system, said Cindy Foster, the system's community affairs director.

The survey found that 87 percent of the county school employees approved of the current calendar, she said.

More than 60 percent of the parents and students also approved, Foster said.

Some officials have specualted that economic concerns for the region's tourist industry shaped the proposed legislation, especially because its source comes from a legislator directly involved with area.

Stephens, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, said parents are driving the proposal more than businesses that rely on summer tourists.

"The No. 1 concern is families," Stephens said. "If these crazy start dates are educating our children better, show me."

But House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said he would probably oppose the idea. "I don't like schools starting early, but I don't know that I should be the one telling them when to start."

The North Carolina Legislature passed a law last year to standardize school start dates amid heavy contention from local jurisdictions as well, said Alexis Schauss, chief of information, analysis, and reporting at North Carolina Public Schools.

The law will take effect next school year for North Carolina's schools, requiring them to begin classes by Aug. 25.

However, legislators allowed for exemptions, Schauss said.

A school could apply for a waiver on the basis of "a history of being closed for inclement weather . . . and for educational purposes," the law says.

Schauss said "educational purposes" would allow schools diverge from the state mandated calendar if they had a special program to accommodate.

Also, she said year-round schools were exempt from the law.

Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said he thinks tourism interests are driving the idea. He said the decision belongs with local systems who can tailor a starting date to meet a local need.

"This is just one of those things where local systems believe the General Assembly has no business messing in," he said.

Other Items in the Legislature

Legislation submitted by Rep. John Lunsford R-McDonough would encourage the Georgia Department of Transportation to allow drivers to use emergency lanes and shoulders in areas of heavy congestion.

"Georgians need some relief from the congestion that's there," Lunsford told reporters Thursday at a news conference detailing the bill.

The measure would allow the special lanes to be used only in certain hours, such as morning and evening rush, and never for more than eight hours a day.

The state would need federal permission to implement the program on intestates and major highways that were built with federal funds.

The following highways would be affected locally:

? I-75 from I-285 to State Route 5

? I-85 from the I-75 and I-85 split to I-285

? State Route 3 from State Route 138 to I-75

Also Rep. Bill Hembree R-Douglasville filed a bill Thursday afternoon that would limit the coverage of the HOPE scholarship to 127 hours.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.