JARED RANEY | DAILY TIMES HERALDBrian Johnson, a state fair lobbyist, was a strong advocate for the proposed change, citing examples from the Iowa Code as his reason why the rule should be put into place.

Brian Johnson, a state fair lobbyist, was a strong advocate for the proposed change, citing examples from the Iowa Code as his reason why the rule should be put into place.
August 2, 2013

Des Moines

A proposed state rule that would have likely forced Carroll schools to push back the start of the school year in 2014 was rejected Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The board voted 5-2 to kill the measure, which was recently proposed by the state Department of Education after an unsuccessful legislative push this year to prevent public schools from starting classes too early in August.

Iowa law requires school districts to start classes no earlier than the week of Sept. 1 unless that start date would have a "significant negative impact" on students. The vast majority of districts - 340 of 348 this past school year - obtain a waiver to start early each year.

"The law sets a mandatory start date, and it's our job to comply with the law," said Staci Hupp, a Department of Education spokeswoman. "We believe that allowing everyone to get waivers isn't in line with the law's intent."

Businesses and organizations that benefit from summer tourism have lobbied lawmakers for the past two years to make the law more restrictive. The Iowa State Fair, for instance, runs from Aug. 8 to 18, and Carroll's public and parochial schools start classes Aug. 14 this year.

"We've made significant investments in education in terms of dollars. Somebody has to pay for it, and we don't want to chop the legs off of an industry that provides $8 billion, $8 billion in revenue," said board member William "Mike" May. "You figure the sales tax on that folks, and what that's doing to the coffers."

School leaders argue that students benefit from the early start date because they can finish the fall semester before winter break, rather than taking semester tests after the break of a week or more.

The rule that was defeated Thursday would have made it difficult for districts to start more than 11 days prior to Sept. 1.

"We figured that if this proposed rule had been in place for this coming year, about 70 percent of districts would have no impact," Hupp said. "For 98.5 percent of districts, they would have been impacted by three days or less."

At the meeting, time was set aside for members of the public to come forward and speak. Eight people, speaking from both sides of the issue, spoke to the board on Thursday.

A motion to split the items into two parts was submitted from Diane Crookham-Johnson, and the board voted unanimously to pass three items.

"The first three items update the rules to reflect newly enacted legislation from the 2013 session," said Mike Cormack, policy liaison with the Department of Education. "A major change in the law that does require updating our rules is the new statute allowing Iowa school districts to adopt a 1,080-hour school year if they so choose."

Right now schools operate under a mandatory 180 days, with a minimum day length of 5 1/2 hours.

Crookham-Johnson motioned to dismiss the next item, the issue of school-start dates.

"I think that, personally - this is a state board of education. I think we should look at this strictly through the lens of education, and as much as I respect those folks that have spoken on the tourism and the impact on tourism in Iowa," said vice president of the board Charles Edwards, "I think we have to look at this in terms of what's in the best interest of Iowa students."

"I think we're too big of a state geographically, I think too diverse of a state to think that we can set rules for a calendar that makes us this consistent statewide, in all 99 counties and 300 plus school districts," said Crookham-Johnson. "This needs further discussion than the state board of education can give it, or it deserves. I think this is a legislative issue."

The consensus was not to put away the issue for good, but to look for direction from the Legislature.

"It strikes me, if this is something that needs to change, some folks need to go back to the Iowa Legislature, and get the Iowa Legislature to give us more specific direction," Edwards said. "This seems to have worked well, I think we need to give maximum flexibility to our local districts to decide when they want their schools to start."

Following discussion Crookham Johnson withdrew her motion and May proceeded to motion for a vote on the rule. May and LaMetta Wynn were the only board members who voted yes. "This is a false choice, that we're saying we gotta choose education, or we gotta choose tourism," said board member William "Mike" May. "If education is truly being hurt by a rule like this, we'd all reject it, we wouldn't even argue that."

Max Phillips and President Rosie Hussey were absent from the vote.

Local school boards set school start dates for each of Iowa's districts. Rob Cordes, superintendent of the Carroll Community School District, said local control should be paramount to gripes from the tourism industry.

"The start of the school year should be the board's decision, not a state decision," he said.

Some board of education members agreed.

"I think there has to be a balance between local control and how, where the state weighs in," Edwards said. "I'm not convinced, personally, that there's a reason for, to change the rule."

Other Carroll-area school districts, such as East Sac County, would not have been affected by the proposed rule. It's classes start a week later than Carroll this year.

"We always try to find some balance between starting too early and too late," said Kevin Fiene, the East Sac superintendent. "We really like our schedule."

One of the biggest problems advocates for the rule have is that under current policy is to automatically approve waiver requests. One of the biggest changes would be to require a more stringent approval process.

"There is no inherent right under this law to an automatic exemption, it's simply not in the law," Cormack said. "Last year, 340 school districts requested waivers from the official start date, and 340 received them. If the intent was that 340 school districts would ask for a waiver and 340 would get it - as was the case last year - the law would simply read schools start whenever they wish."

"With the change to 1,080-hour schedules, school districts now have much more flexibility to meet the needs of their students, without starting school as early as they have," Cormack said.