Summer vacation hasn't arrived in Harford County, but already a battle may be brewing over the start of school in 1998.
At a school board meeting tonight, a committee is expected to recommend that the 1998-1999 school year start before Labor Day -- drawing criticism from families of 4-H members who would have to choose between school and the Maryland State Fair.
"The Maryland State Fair represents a year's worth of work for these kids," said Wanda Edie, a calendar committee member who represents the 4-H clubs and the Harford County Farm Bureau and disagrees with the recommendation. "They work very hard to get ready for it, and now they will have to choose between going to the fair and those first few, very important days of school."
Labor Day falls on Sept. 7 next year, and the recommendation would call for school to begin on Sept. 3, the Thursday before Labor Day.
School officials say the last time Harford began before Labor Day was in 1993, -- a move that proved beneficial because the school system had 15 snow days, and students were able to make up five.
Donald R. Morrison, spokesman for Harford County schools, said the 15 members of the calendar committee -- which met April 1 -- were sensitive to the conflict, but faced the challenge of producing a calendar that would allow for an unspecified number of snow days and four additional days off for students.
"We have two election days, the primary and the general, and two promised Jewish holidays which will fall on weekdays," said Morrison. "If we started on Sept. 8, students wouldn't be able to get out until June 22."
An early start to the school year has long sparked controversy throughout the state, with parents complaining that it disrupts vacations and activities such as the fair, which is held the week before Labor Day.
Some school systems have tried to make accommodations -- Carroll County, which for the past several years has begun classes before Labor Day, marks students "present" who obtain permission in advance to attend the fair and gives others excused absences.
In Harford County, the fair is a major event for an area where hundreds of youngsters participate and 135,000 acres are zoned for agricultural use.
But as development has boomed and townhouses have replaced farmhouses, many say the dispute over the school start date symbolizes the changing face of an area where newcomers aren't familiar with farm life.
"They want to be in the rural area, but they don't understand," said Jamey Bachman, who with her husband, Charles, raises sheep, hogs, cattle and chickens on their Fallston farm. "We sell pumpkins in the fall, and people stop by and they say, 'Oh it's really neat that you live here,' but you can almost see it in their faces that they are thinking, 'I'm glad to be able to go home to my house and not have to do all this work.' "
The farm has been in the Bachman family for five generations, and sons John, 17, and Andy, 14, are continuing the tradition. Bachman said her children are very active in 4-H.
"It's a hard decision because the first few days of school are when they receive their guidelines and it's a very important time," Bachman said. "But if kids are interested in staying in agriculture, we should support them because it's a dying occupation. It's my kids' heritage."
Andy, an eighth-grader at Fallston Middle School, said an early start date means missing an opportunity to see fellow 4-H members from around the state.
"I don't see why we would have to start before Labor Day, we've started after for so many years," he said. "If you miss a day, there's no chance to win for that day."
Charles "Ducky" Daughton of Pylesville has worked at the fair for 40 years and is in charge of the indoor exhibits. He said the fair is a "learning opportunity" for students.
"It will take away a lot of opportunities for the kids," he said. "There are roughly 600 kids in Harford County active in 4-H, and the fair is an educational experience for all students. I see no reason to start before Labor Day."
Morrison said Harford County School Superintendent Jeffery N. Grotsky is expected to recommend that the school board seek public input during the next few weeks on the start date.
Pub Date: 4/14/97