ANNAPOLIS — The Senate chamber appeared split down party lines on whether school systems should again be allowed to start classes before Labor Day, but there was local bipartisan support among the partisan fray.
Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) and Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick & Carroll) both voted in support of an amendment on the Senate floor on Friday that would have designated Labor Day as a state holiday for schools, despite the men taking opposing views on the underlying bill.
“They had a lot of amendments to undercut [the bill], but I don’t think this one would have undercut it,” Young said.
The day before, the Senate debated the bill, SB 128, for 90 minutes and voted down a series of proposed amendments that would have codified in law Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) executive order from 2016, which established a statewide post-Labor Day start date for schools. A preliminary vote of 32-14, reported by The Baltimore Sun and other news agencies, that day showed the chamber leaning in favor of returning scheduling power to the local school boards.
The debate continued Friday with Sen. Stephen Hershey (R-Kent, Queen Anne’s, Cecil & Caroline) proposing an amendment that would have required schools to observe Labor Day as a holiday. Labor Day is already a federal holiday.
Young and Hough voted in support of the amendment in a 28-16 vote, with two excused absences and Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel) declining to vote. The amendment failed.
“It’s just procedural at this point, because they want to pass the bill and reject all amendments,” Hough said in an interview.
While campaigning in 2018 Hough heard widespread support for the post-Labor Day start date. He also appreciated the change as a parent of three young children, the youngest of whom is now in kindergarten. When school would start before Labor Day, the kids seemed to have days off and half-days within the first week, he said. He could see how this could be difficult for households with two working parents.
“I think it’s common sense that schools should start after Labor Day,” Hough said.
He also expected Frederick County Public Schools to return to a pre-Labor Day scheduled should the bill pass, which it appears to have the votes to do in the Senate.
Locally, there has been challenges to crafting a balanced school calendar.
Jewish and Muslim students have testified at Frederick County Board of Education meetings in support of including their religious holidays as days off from school where Christian holidays are mostly observed. The board can’t choose to close school because of religious reasons, but can close schools for days it expects high rates of absenteeism.
But the board is also under strict state mandates to have students in the classroom 180 days each year for a minimum of 1,080 school hours.
The debate came to a head in 2017 when the school board tentatively scheduled a popular local holiday “Fair Friday” — which allows parents and children to spend the day together at The Great Frederick Fair — as a day off instead of Yom Kippur, a High Holy Day for the Jewish faith. The board ultimately scheduled school so that both fell on Sept. 19 during the 2018-2019 school year, a Wednesday.
The three- to four-day flexibility of a pre-Labor Day start could make a big difference in scheduling, Frederick County Board of Education member Mike Bunitsky previously told The News-Post. The board has already voted, however, on a Sept. 3 start for next school year, which is the day after Labor Day.
At a press conference on Thursday, Hogan criticized the Legislature’s attempt to reverse his executive order. He defended his decision by recounting the General Assembly’s previous decision under former Gov. Martin O’Malley to research the potential of a post-Labor Day school start date. It established a commission, which met for a year and later had majority support for a post-Labor Day start.
O’Malley did not move forward with the recommendation, but Hogan submitted legislation that would have acted on the proposal. The General Assembly never took up Hogan’s bills, so he issued the executive order in 2016.
“We’ve taken a lot of actions over the past four years, but I can’t think of any other action that has as much widespread, enthusiastic support all across the state as this one does,” Hogan said. “Sadly, this common-sense action is now being threatened by out-of-touch politicians.”
Hogan said he would not allow politicians to turn back the will of Marylanders.
He planned to submit legislation immediately to require school boards that want to start school before Labor Day to put it on the ballot for a vote. However, if the Legislature passes the bill without giving the people control over the decision, then there would be a petition for referendum, Hogan said.
A petition for referendum is the right of all voters to gather signatures in support or opposition to a bill passed by the General Assembly. The petition needs to collect signatures from at least 3 percent of all registered voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election — in this case, 2018 — in order to pass.
“School after Labor Day will remain the law of this state,” Hogan said.