As School Starts, Calendar Debate Begins

By: Paul Gattis, The Huntsville Times
By: Paul Gattis, The Huntsville Times

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- As the state of Alabama wraps up what officials expect to be a record summer for tourism, a local legislator is looking to possibly shrink the summer and return control of the school calendar to school boards.

Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, is introducing a bill today that would allow school systems to formulate their own calendars, or "opt out," and not be hamstrung by the calendar restrictions passed by the Legislature in May over the veto of Gov. Robert Bentley.

Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, is filing an identical bill in the House, Holtzclaw said.

The bills revive one of the hottest issues of the legislative session earlier this year. Lawmakers passed a bill that mandated school not begin for the 2012-13 academic year before today - the strategy being to extend the summer tourism season and give parents every opportunity to infuse state budgets with vacation tax dollars.

The strategy appears to have worked with regard to increased summer tourism. Yet critics of the state calendar send their children off to school today knowing there will be no fall break in October and a shortened Christmas vacation.

To stretch the summer, schools must squeeze 180 days of instruction into an academic year that must begin no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day and end before Memorial Day.

"The extended summer vacation period is going to be a big success for the state's economy," state tourism director Lee Sentell said. "Reservations at condos and hotels on the Gulf Coast are indicating that it's going to be a record summer, as well as a record August."

While saying he supports Alabama tourism, Holtzclaw was still firmly against the state-mandated calendar passed last session. He also said lawmakers "held their nose" approving the calendar because of a mirage of money at stake.

Calendar proponents promised that adoption of the statewide calendar would be worth $22 million to the state's Education Trust Fund. But Holtzclaw said that $22 million promise was withdrawn once the bill was passed.

"A lot of my colleagues held their nose and voted for it because they thought that $22 million was going to be there," Holtzclaw said. "After it was passed, another ETF budget was passed and the $22 million was gone."

Holtzclaw compared it to the "bait-and-switch" scheme.

"I was against the school calendar all along," he said. "Tourism is a good thing. We need tourism. But what we did is we took away local control (from school boards). It's not just about money. The money was the shell game they used to get the votes."

The statewide calendar does not allow individual school systems to tailor the calendar to a community's needs, Holtzclaw said.

Rep. Randy Davis, the Daphne Republican who sponsored the school calendar bill, said the $22 million was a "projection."

"I didn't have any hard monies to put down on that," he said. "It was part of the analysis that was provided to us."

Davis cited a 2009 economic report authored by Auburn University Montgomery professor Keivan Deravi that said the state was losing $30 million per day when school went back into session in early August.

"We were missing a window of about $300 million bucks," said Davis, calculating extending the summer this year by about 10 days.

As for the elimination of fall break in the new calendar, Davis said, "The numbers are not even close on fall break as far as tourism."

With the summer unofficially ending today with the ringing of school bells across the state, tourism officials must wait a few more weeks before they get concrete data on just how much the longer summer added to state coffers.

Unless Holtzclaw's bill overturns the statewide school calendar, the summer of 2013 could be even bigger.

"Frankly, we expect to see the maximum benefit next year," said Herb Malone, president of Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Tourism. "By the time the Legislature passed it (in May), it was very late in the session. From what I'm hearing, we're seeing some benefit from it."

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