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Pre-Labor Day school start praised, criticized

Minnesota state Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2014, argues in favor of her bill to allow schools to start before Labor Day. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Proposals to allow schools to start classes before Labor Day, a frequent legislative debate topic, would hurt the state's economy, a Brainerd-area resort owner testified Tuesday.

At the same time, Tom Kavanaugh of Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort said: "There is no evidence that starting school before Labor Day will improve education."

General Manager Jerry Hammer of the Minnesota State Fair added that students miss one educational opportunity, the fair, to attend classes.

"We're in the same business," Hammer said about the fair and schools' education mission.

The debate is nearly an annual one at the Minnesota Legislature. Many school districts argue in favor of allowing boards to make the decision about when to start, while those in resort areas, in particular, say early starts hurt their economy.

This year, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, sponsors a bill to allow a start before Labor Day 2015 only. Rep. Kim Norton, D-Rochester, has a bill allowing pre-Labor Day starts, but bans classes on the Thursday and Friday before Labor Day.

After Tuesday testimony in front of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, Chairwoman Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said a vote on Kresha's bill will come during a later meeting and the Norton bill will be held for possible inclusion in a larger education package.

In general, state law prohibits schools opening before Labor Day, but there are exceptions.

"Let's put this in the hands of our elected officials," Kresha said about school board members.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, worried that many schools do not have air conditioning and an early start would result in hot classrooms.

"The later we start is healthier and better for the kids," he said.

Norton said that she would expect districts with resorts that hire students and those without air conditioning would opt for a later start. Neither bill requires an early start.

Hammer and Kavanaugh focused on the economic impact of early school.

"The Minnesota State Fair is one of the largest events in the world..." Hammer said. "If early school start becomes the norm, the fair will be diminished."

He said that the fair hires many students from the Twin Cities for its 10-day run, young people who would not be available if school starts earlier.

When school has been allowed to begin before Labor Day, Hammer said, the 4-H building was closed in the middle of the fair because the students were in classes.

Kavanaugh told the committee that tourism employs 250,000 people in the state, 11 percent of the workforce, and pays 17 percent of the state sales tax.

An early start, he said, would cost the state revenue and force lawmakers to decide whether to cut programs such as social services. Ironically, he added, it also could cut school revenues.

Hammer reached back to 1902 to prove that the fair is a valuable education tool. That is when the St. Paul and Minneapolis schools released a document saying that the fair provides double the educational opportunity of a classroom.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.