ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — When Gov. Phil Bryant signed a new law, requiring Mississippi public school districts to start the school year no earlier than the third Monday in August, many rejoiced.
After all, the later start date would extend summer vacation, have a positive impact on tourism in the state and mean fewer days of scorching hot weather during the school year — or so argued proponents of the law.
There is another side to the equation.
While mandating school districts start the year later as of the 2014-15 school year, districts cannot offset the later start date by simply ending the school year later.
The law doesn’t specifically say school districts cannot end the school year later, but Ocean Springs Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter said school attorney Alwyn Luckey confirmed with the Mississippi Department of Education that moving the end date of the school year would be circumventing the intent of the law.
“The intent of the law is a longer summer,” Coleman-Potter said. “If you go later, you’re not really following the intent.”
Instead, Coleman-Potter said students, faculty and parents are likely going to lose some of the vacation days to which they’ve become accustomed over the years. The Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras and Christmas holidays could be affected, she said.
“It’s going to require us to condense the school year,” Coleman-Potter said. “The only thing we can do is absorb some of the two weeks we’ll lose from the later start.”
By law, schools are required to have 180 days of instruction.
A 2009 survey commissioned by the Gulf Coast Business Council and conducted by The Bradley Research Group found that 76.3 percent of Mississippians supported moving the start of school closer to Labor Day, which prior to the 1980’s had been the traditional benchmark for the start of school.
In that survey, the highest support for a later start of school came from the 23 southernmost counties in the state, including Jackson County, at 79.4 percent.
In conjunction with the survey, the GCBC issued a report suggesting that a later start to school could bring as much as $100 million in additional tourism revenue to the state and add 1,500 jobs.
Pascagoula Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich, an outspoken opponent of the later start date, says the focus should never have been on tourism.
“I don’t think anything that takes control away from school districts is a good thing” Rodolfich said. “We were strongly opposed to it from the beginning. This is focused on tourism, not on our children or their education.
“There was not enough due diligence done on this and as educators we weren’t talked to enough.”
Unlike Ocean Springs, Rodolfich said the Pascagoula School District’s intent is to lengthen the school year and keep current vacation days intact.
“Our goal is to preserve those breaks for our teachers and our children,” he said. “You have to have those breaks built in. I think our families count on that.
“I am a child-centered and teacher-centered superintendent,” Rodolfich said. “I think it’s essential to have those breaks to allow our students and teachers to decompress. But we will follow the law.”
Coleman-Potter said that the later start date could potentially have even more negative consequences for coast schools than in other parts of the state. Schools along the coast are under the threat of severe weather, including tropical storms and hurricanes, which can cause the loss of school days.
Last year, Ocean Springs schools lost four days to Hurricane Isaac.
Coleman-Potter petitioned the state to “forgive” those days, but her request was denied. As a result, Ocean Springs faculty and students lost the traditional fall break day, two days of the Thanksgiving break and one day of Christmas break.
Coleman-Potter said losing days to weather after the later start date takes effect could be problematic.
“What concerns me most is that here on the Coast we often have to have some inclement weather days,” Coleman-Potter said. “If we have a hurricane, we’d likely be forced to extend the school year.”
Rodolfich and Coleman-Potter said no final decisions have been made on how their respective districts will offset the later start date and maintain the required 180 days of instruction.
“Those are decisions we’ll have to make as we move towards 2014,” Coleman-Potter said. “This is a break from the norm. It takes away something we’ve been accustomed to, but we’ll adjust, as we always do.”