MONTGOMERY — It’s being called a two-year economic experiment that north Alabama lawmakers want schools to be able to walk away from if necessary.
Last year, the state Legislature approved a bill that put parameters on when public schools could start and end this academic year and next year. They are required to start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day and end no later than the Friday before Memorial Day.
Now, several north Alabama lawmakers want schools to be able to opt out of that mandatory calendar. Lawmakers and tourism officials from the southern portion of the state, which benefits the most from the extended vacation season, want them to stay in it, at least for another year.
“I’m still adamantly opposed to this because our local school leaders should be deciding when schools start and stop,” said Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, who represents most of Limestone County.
His bill, Senate Bill 89, would extend the statewide calendar beyond next year, but also let systems opt out of it.
The Senate Education Fund Committee didn’t vote on Holtzclaw’s bill Wednesday, but likely will next week.
“I’m very supportive of the bill to return control to local school boards,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur said Wednesday after a committee hearing on Holtzclaw’s bill. Last year, Orr called the mandatory calendar bill the “Baldwin County Economic Development Bill.”
Many local districts say they’d like the control back.
Morgan County Schools Superintendent Billy Hopkins Jr. said his system had to shorten this year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks in order to meet the requirements of the original bill.
“Because we had to start so late and end so early, everything was pressed,” he said.
Florence City Schools Superintendent Janet Womack said she’s supportive of the opt-out bill.
“We certainly are in favor of local decision-making when it comes to the calendar, and other factors,” she said.
But Holtzclaw’s bill is too late for Florence this year. Womack said the district set its calendar in February, at the request of families who want to plan vacations in advance. The 2013-14 year will start Aug. 19, the latest possible day.
Last year, proponents of mandatory calendar said it would generate $22 million in tax revenue, which would benefit the state education fund.
Sen. Roger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, wants to know the exact benefits.
“I want to know how much was sent and the formula used to distribute to the systems,” he said. “We’re touting this as an advantage to all districts in the state; I want to know what that advantage was.
“I want to know if it’s worth it to the rest of the state, I know it is to y’all (on the coast).”
Opponents of Holtzclaw’s bill on Wednesday said that the original bill last year increased tourism and spending on the coast and saved school systems across the state money on utilities.
Herb Malone of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau said that a second year of all systems participating in the statewide calendar is needed to gauge the true economic impact.
“Let’s stay the course and see this thing through the two-year period,” Malone said.