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Minnesota schools see way around Labor Day statute

MOORHEAD - For area districts chafing at a Minnesota ban on kicking off the school year before Labor Day, recent weeks have brought disappointment and confusion.

First, state legislators last week shot down in committee a bill that would have suspended the rule this year, when the holiday falls late, on Sept. 7.

Now, the Minnesota Department of Education is saying districts such as Moorhead might not be able to take advantage of an exception for schools that synchronize schedules with a district in a neighboring state.

Moorhead and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton have both approved calendars with an Aug. 31 start date, invoking joint staff development and other collaboration with Fargo.

To Minnesota Association of School Administrators President Dan Brooks, the turmoil feeds into longstanding, statewide opposition to the Labor Day rule.

"We tend to play all kind of games with this statute, which really suggests to me that the start of the school year ought to be a local decision," said Brooks, adding a group of southwest Minnesota districts has threatened to flout the statute this year.

Earlier this week, the Barnesville School District adopted two calendars, one with a Sept. 1 start date and one with a Sept. 8 kickoff.

Superintendent Scott Loeslie hopes the district will be able to use the Sept. 1 version. Starting a week later would cut into class time before high-stakes state tests in the fall. It could push the end of the school year into mid-June, complicating student bids to line up summer jobs and internships.

Besides, students just learn better in the fall than in the spring, he said.

"In the fall they're ready and anxious to come back to school," Loeslie said. "In the spring they're ready and anxious to be done with school."

Last week, a House committee voted down a proposal to suspend the Labor Day rule this year and next. The opposition said the bill would yank business from rural resort owners in an already sluggish economy.

But a similar proposal is part of an omnibus education bill legislators will tackle later this session. In the meantime, Loeslie hopes his district's limited collaboration with Fargo would make it eligible for an exemption in the school calendar statute, which reads, "A school district that agrees to the same schedule with a school district in an adjoining state may begin the school year before Labor Day."

Moorhead agreed to the same schedule with Fargo and approved an Aug. 31 start date last month. So did D-G-F, which shares a speech teacher with Fargo.

But now, the Department of Education says to be exempt from the Labor Day rule, a district and its neighbor across the border need to have a so-called pairing agreement, a formal arrangement that often involves sharing grade levels or teaching staff.

"At this time, Moorhead does not have a pairing agreement and would need special legislative permission to start school prior to Labor Day," Department of Education spokeswoman Christine Dufour wrote in an e-mail. Dufour later said the department would determine if Moorhead's move is legal after getting more information from the district.

Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash noted the statute doesn't mention a pairing agreement.

To Loeslie, the best outcome would be a legislative change of course: "I believe school districts probably know best, and so I think local control is the option of choice."