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Harford board members divided on starting school before or after Labor Day

Contact Reporterebutler@theaegis.com

Harford school members have mixed feelings about when to start the school year — before or after Labor Day.

The Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill this session to give back control over the start day of school to the local jurisdictions, rather than the post-Labor Day start mandated by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2016 for the 2017-2018 school year.

The bill passed the Senate earlier this week and will be considered next by the House of Delegates.

After Hogan’s decree, which was aimed at helped the tourism industry in Maryland, Harford redid its calendar for the 2017-2018 school year to reflect starting after Labor Day.

“It’s good to have flexibility to accommodate local needs, but we have a process in place and will rely on the recommendations of the calendar committee and the Board of Education," Superintendent Sean Bulson said about returning control of when the school year starts to the local jurisdictions.

Harford County Public Schools has a calendar committee that meets to provide a recommendation for the school calendar to the board of education, Jillian Lader, manager of communications for the school system, said.

Members first look at requirements that must be on the calendar, such as scheduling a start date after Labor Day and including 180 school days for students. The board also solicits feedback from the entire community before they vote on the school calendar each year, she said.

“A specific start date can present a challenge in meeting calendar requirements as the committee and board consider calendar requirements and community feedback, or requests, for the calendar,” Lader said.

Laura Runyeon, the school board vice president, said she prefers starting after Labor Day, unless that means going to school late into June.

“I just think it gives them the opportunity to fully take advantage of the summer,” Runyeon said.

But she doesn’t like a post-Labor Day start “if it means we have to go nearly to the end of June — I’d rather start in August.”

“Everybody needs to come together and figure out fairest and most favorable thing to do so kids and families aren’t squeezed in the middle,” Runyeon said.

As a school board member, Rachel Gauthier said it should be up to the community prefers, and she posed that question on her Facebook page.

“I got a wide variety of reasons for what they wanted,” Gauthier said. “If you’re elected, you have to look at what people want.”

Personally, however, as a mom of students in Harford public schools and as a counselor in a Baltimore County school, Gauthier prefers a pre-Labor Day start to the school year.

She’s also a proponent of year-round schooling, and loved it when she was growing up in California. Schools would be in session for six weeks then closed for two weeks.

“I’m not a fan of traditional schooling,” she said.

It’s designed for the agrarian community, when farmers needed students to be off for long periods to work the family farm.

As an educator, she worries about “brain drain,” losing knowledge over a long summer break.

If school started before Labor Day by a week or two, students could ease back into the school year, with short weeks for the Labor Day holiday and Jewish holidays, depending when they fall, Gauthier said.

“A pre-Labor Day start shortens the time kids are out of school,” Gauthier said. “Then it won’t be as much of a shock to the system.”

She also said the school system needs to consider students who get free and reduced lunches and if they’re being fed and supervised when school isn’t in session.

“What are they doing at home if they’re not supervised?” she asked.

School board President Joe Voskuhl said both have positives and negatives. By starting before Labor Day, students and staff can have a longer spring break, or have a shorter spring break and get out earlier in June.

But when snow days are factored into with a start after Labor Day, school can be in session late in June, Voskuhl said, using this year as an example.

Harford schools would have been out June 7, but with five inclement weather days already used, the last day is pushed back to June 14. Any more snow days and schools will be the week of June 17 to 21.

The community hasn’t seemed to have had any issues with the schedule since moving to a post-Labor Day start.

“It seems to have worked out,” Voskuhl said. “I think the majority of our families seem to prefer the after-Labor Day start.”

Board member Al Williamson doesn’t like control being taken away from the local school boards, concerns shared by board member Jansen Robinson.

“I do have a concern about the infringement on local control of public schools,” Robinson said.

He would like to keep the start of school after Labor Day, as would Williamson.

“I’m from the old school,” Williamson said. “I know theory that kids get behind, but I like more time off between the end of school and the start.”

Gov. Hogan has pledged to write his own bill that would allow local school boards to start classes before Labor Day, but only if they put the decision on the ballot for a public vote.

Reporter Pamela Wood of The Baltimore Sun contributed to this article.

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