Supers support school start age

Published 12:01 am Thursday, May 3, 2012

Legislators recently passed two measures that would impact not only the length of summer break, but also the mandatory start age for students.

Local education leaders are adopting a wait and see on the first, while giving their support to the later.

On Tuesday, the Alabama Senate passed HB 360, a bill that would create a public school start date law that would make summer vacations – and possibly school days – longer for students. It’s a move lawmakers described as “a way to raise revenues, create more opportunities and reduce energy costs.” Sponsored by Sen. Tripp Pittman (R-Montrose) and Rep. Randy Davis (R-Daphne), the bill cleared the legislature Tuesday after the House concurred with changes made by the Senate. It would take effect in the 2013-2014 school year if signed by the governor, and would prohibit schools from opening earlier than Aug. 20 or closing later than May 24.

Gov. Robert Bentley has not said whether he will sign the legislation.

Local superintendents have said they believe the bill takes away flexibility at a local level.

“I’m not sure what to say about the calendar debate,” Opp City Schools’ Superintendent Michael Smithart said. “We will adapt to whatever is passed. I just hope it happens soon. We are making plans for either scenario. I am willing to soften my stance on start dates if the Educational Trust Fund can recognize additional funding and decrease the possibility that staff may be cut.”

Covington County Schools Superintendent Terry Holley agreed with Smithart and said he believes Gov. Robert Bentley will veto the calendar bill.

Supporters pointed out that extending the school day by just 10 minutes could reduce the school year by an entire week. The bill, proposed first by the tourism industry, also is designed to balance tourism needs and manage a tough fiscal challenge. Revenues are down, but the Alabama Revenue Department predicts that every week that the school start date is delayed adds $11 million to state coffers derived primarily from a longer tourism season. Supporters point out that the schools would see dramatic decreases in utility costs.

And both Smithart and Holley said they – like educators across the state – supported the vote to lower the mandatory school age for children from 7 to 6.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Holley said. “The earlier we can get a child into school, the better.”

But, they said they didn’t believe the county would experience a jump in enrollment numbers because of the legislation because of the availability of Head Start and pre-kindergarten opportunities in the county.

“I’m not sure it will make a significant impact on numbers, but it does place emphasis on the importance of early learning opportunities,” Smithart said.

There is a provision in the bill that allows parents to request an exemption to the law.