AZ schools cannot start before Labor Day, says education committee

Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Rejecting claims it's none of their business, a House panel voted to block public and charter schools from starting classes each year before Labor Day. The 5-2 vote by the Education Committee for HB 2303 came after arguments by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, that the current practice by many schools of starting the year in August -- if not earlier -- is good for neither children nor taxpayers.



"We have a real safety and health issue in my mind," said Farnsworth who operates Benjamin Franklin Charter Schools.

"In July and August, we have a number of days that are very hot, they're very humid, and we can't let the kids outside," he said. Beyond that, Farnsworth said those two months present the heaviest load on the electrical grid, meaning Arizona utilities have to import electricity from elsewhere.

Janice Palmer, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, did not dispute any of that. But she told lawmakers there's a reason schools moved up the start date: High-stakes standardized tests that have been offered by the state in April.

"There really was a focus about how many days do we want to get in before that assessment takes place so that we maximize the educational time for kids to learn," she explained.

Palmer acknowledged that is likely to change as the state goes to a new system with end-of course testing and even the opportunity for online evaluations. But even then, she said, that's no reason to set start dates in law, saying that is best left to locally elected school boards.

"I respect local control," Farnsworth said. "I'm not trying to take that away in any sense other than in those very specific issues to deal with those very specific problems that we have."

Farnsworth's contention that shifting the school start dates will result in lower utility costs drew questions.

"In Flagstaff, when the monsoons come in, the temperatures drop," said Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff. "Weeks before we might be in 85-90 degrees and then all of a sudden we'll see a drop down to 75 degrees."

He wants the legislation amended to ensure "maximum flexibility" for districts where the weather patterns are not the same as they are in the desert.

And Paul Tighe, superintendent of the Mingus Union High School District, said that moving start dates -- and even decreasing energy use -- does not necessarily result in lower electric bills.

In his district, Tighe said, the bill is based on commercial rates. That makes the amount due heavily dependent on demand versus actual use.

"It makes us pay for energy we don't use," he said. "So you can make a lot of conservation and not have a lot of dollar savings."

Starting the school year later also means ending the school year later, according to Bob Weir, principal at Camp Verde High School.

"It backs you into June, which is just as hot as August," Weir said. "I just don't see a benefit to the students, nor their families. I think this should be locally controlled."

The lack of data on what schools might save resulting in Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, refusing to support the measure.

Rep. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said she appreciates the problems of the summer heat, saying she has done "lunch duty" at her school when it's 119 degrees outside. But she said decisions about start and end dates should be left to local boards.

Originally Posted on on 2/10/2015.