SUNDAY EDITION | Endless summer? Tourism industry backs later start of Kentucky schools
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – At Prizer Point Marina on Lake Barkley, the start of school marks the unofficial end of summer. It also abruptly ends owner Greg Batts’s peak money-making season.
Prizer Point in western Kentucky is geared toward families and includes a climbing wall, splash pools and stand-up paddleboard rentals, but the marina empties out once students return to school around early August, Batts said.
“Our business goes from full speed to literally a ghost town during the week,” he said.
Some state legislators have taken notice of the dilemma facing marinas, theme parks and other tourist draws: In many Kentucky counties, school starts while warm weather is in full swing, cutting short a summer break that no longer stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
When the General Assembly convenes in January, lawmakers plan to push a bill that would require most schools in Kentucky to start no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26. That means Jefferson County Public Schools would have resumed classes this year on August 24 – not August 12.
Supporters say the extra weeks could extend the travel season by 20 percent or more. And while no studies have measured the economic impact of a later start date in Kentucky, backers claim a longer summer will generate more sales for small businesses and tax revenue for local and state government coffers.
And they cite other savings – the energy costs to keep school buildings cool and the time students spend on school buses during one of the hottest times of the year.
But the proposal also raises questions about whether state lawmakers should take control of the school calendar away from locally elected school boards.
“I am philosophically for local control, except when it gets out of control. And I think that school starting in late July and early August has just gone too far,” said Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown and Senate majority floor leader who plans to co-sponsor the school calendar bill.
The legislature divvies out large sums of money each year to school districts across Kentucky and is “completely within its purview” to decide when school starts, he said.
The move wouldn’t sacrifice education in favor of tourism or reduce the overall number of school days, its proponents say. On the contrary, they argue, students would have fewer interruptions as their plan envisions eliminating fall break and other vacations.
Thayer said the bill would be similar to one he co-sponsored last year. The Senate Education Committee had a hearing for SB 129, but it but didn’t advance.
The measure also would have let school districts begin sooner if they’ve had a history of canceling days because of bad weather. Under last year’s bill, a district could ask to start early if it had lost at least seven days of classes during each of the last five years.
The Kentucky School Boards Association is surveying its members before taking a formal position on the proposal, said David Webster, the group’s president-elect.
“Personally, I think it should be left up to the local school boards as far as the calendars go, when they start and when they end. It shouldn’t be through the state,” said Webster, chairman of the Simpson County Board of Education.
Webster also questions supporters’ claims of a widespread economic boon. Counties in areas near lakes and other recreation areas would benefit, but for “the majority of counties -- it wouldn’t have any effect on them,” he said.
But the Kentucky Travel Industry Association already has begun pushing for changes to the school calendar. Hank Phillips, the association’s president and CEO, testified in favor of it at a meeting of the legislature’s subcommittee on tourism development in late August.
That meeting was held at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville during the state fair – an event Thayer and others say would benefit from the proposal.
Kentucky’s tourism industry supports 179,000 jobs and generates annual state and local tax revenues of $1.37 billion, “a lot of which goes to support education,” Phillips said in an interview.
“Tourism in Kentucky is going great guns right up until school starts,” he said. “So there is no reason to believe that that peak that they’re hitting in July won’t continue into August if school doesn’t start until later in August.”
‘All of our labor goes home’
Louis Epperson has watched firsthand how the start of school has affected Taylorsville Lake southeast of Louisville.
On a trip to the lake on a sunny morning last week, Epperson said he notices a “big difference” once area schools start.
Epperson docks his pontoon boat at Taylorsville Lake Marina. But as he prepared for a day of fishing for catfish and hybrid striped bass, he noted rows of nearby pontoon rental boats that sat vacant.
“If school was out, I’d venture to say there would be at least four or five families already here,” said Epperson, a retired pipefitter from Louisville.
Starting school in early August is a “double-edged sword” that impacts both Kentucky lakes and local workers, said Michele Edwards, executive director of the Kentucky Marina Association, which supports a later start date.
“We still have tourists that come from out of state, but all of our labor goes home or goes back to school,” she said. “So all of a sudden we don’t have help that we need.”
In Louisville, JCPS has started in recent years before the state fair opens. Fair officials now are used to the early start, designing programs for students taking field trips, said Amanda Storment, spokeswoman for the Kentucky State Fair Board.
But she acknowledged that a later start to the school year would likely affect attendance.
“Instead of trending more on the weekends when a lot of people come, there could be more attendance throughout the week,” she said. “The midway opens later in the afternoon on weekdays just because school kids come after school.
Despite the travel industry’s concerns, tourism spending increased in all parts of the state in 2014, according to a study released in May by the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. The largest jump in direct spending – nearly $25 million, or 6.7 percent – was in the “Caves, Lakes & Corvettes” area of southcentral Kentucky.
But that same year a fund that supports Kentucky tourism marketing lost $9 million to the state’s general fund under a state budget move that also raided other accounts. The money is generated from a statewide hotel tax.
Phillips, of the state travel group, said the revenues swept into the general fund pay for statewide marketing efforts.
“It also includes dollars for matching funds that go to the local tourism marketing organizations. … They really felt the brunt of it,” he said.
Legislative debate looms
No one has yet attempted to gauge the economic impact of a later school start date on Kentucky’s tourism economy.
But in Tennessee, where schools have similar start dates, a 2008 study by the University of Tennessee’s Tourism Institute estimated that resuming classes after Labor Day would create nearly $190 million in tourist spending by the state’s residents and $15.2 million in county and state tax revenues.
Kentucky State Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, plans to join Thayer in sponsoring the school calendar legislation. He said it's a simple way to help the state economy at a time of “horrid financial problems in Kentucky,” referring to pension troubles and a recent downgrade of the state’s credit rating.
“It’ll have a tremendous impact on our tourism industries and our economic development efforts without costing the taxpayers a single penny,” he said.
In the Kentucky House, Democratic Speaker Greg Stumbo said in a statement that he generally supports a later start date for schools.
“As long as there is flexibility for school districts to handle weather-related issues like snow and flooding, I don’t have a problem with a law that establishes both a starting and ending date for school calendars,” he said.
The Kentucky Department of Education doesn’t comment on legislation that hasn’t been filed, spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said.
Donna Hargens, superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, declined to comment on the proposal, saying the school board's legislative agenda for the upcoming session hasn't been finalized.
But “local control is important,” said JCPS board member Chris Brady. He said the school district recently sought feedback from parents when deciding when to start school.
“We heard from a lot of constituents that they wanted to move that date up,” he said.
State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said he plans to keep an open mind about the bill but would like to see more data about the possible benefits of an extended summer break.
McGarvey said the state’s role may best be limited to setting the number of instructional hours per school year.
“When they get that instruction could be better left to a local decision-making body,” he said.
Rep. Derrick Graham, a retired Frankfort teacher who chairs the House education committee, said he wants to see the details of the Thayer-Girdler proposal.
“But I’m more inclined to allow the local districts, the local school boards to determine that time that school will start. That’s the way it’s always been,” said Graham, a Democrat. “I don’t think it should come from the state level or from the Department of Education.”
Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All rights reserved.