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Senate majority approves pre-Labor Day school start; bill advances to House

ANNAPOLIS — Students sat in the state Senate gallery on Tuesday and looked down at lawmakers as they debated one last time whether Maryland schools should be able to open before Labor Day.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller acknowledged the onlooking students as Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore & Harford) began the third and final floor discussions of the bill, in which Jennings asked rhetorically if the chamber should ask the students their opinion first. Senators could only discuss, not amend, the bill Tuesday.

“Mr. President, I know the vote, what it’s going to be. I’m willing to put money on the table of what I think it will be. But, I do know the public opinion, that they don’t want this,” Jennings said.

The majority of the senators, however, did want to see Maryland’s 24 school jurisdictions again be able to set the date for the first day of school.

In a vote of 31-13, with three excused absences, the Senate passed SB 128 to enable the state’s school districts to select a start date without regard to Labor Day. The bill will now advance to the House of Delegates.

Frederick County’s two representatives in the state Senate were divided on the issue. Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) voted with the majority in favor to the change, while Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick & Carroll) offered a scathing rebuke of the decision after the vote.

“I have little faith — unfortunately, I must say — in our local school, because they have proven they could not put together a coherent calendar,” Hough said. “Just as they have not been able to figure out what is a snow day or not, because yesterday our school closed for rain in Frederick County.”

As a parent, Hough said he preferred the school calendars crafted following the 2016 executive order by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), which required all schools in Maryland to start after Labor Day. Hogan has strongly opposed the Legislature’s attempt to change the law this session, and said any school board that wants a pre-Labor Day start date should be required to put it to a vote on a local ballot.

Those in favor of the bill argued the flexibility to start before Labor Day would help each county’s Board of Education better accommodate religious holidays and snow days, which vary across the state.

Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore) also said changing the governor’s mandate to start after Labor Day would return choice to the schools.

Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll) said he was happy to hear his Democratic colleagues’ concern for choice and local control. However, he criticized them on past state legislation that passed down local mandates, and future local mandates that will come from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission.

“I don’t think the argument that ‘we don’t want to tell the counties what to do’ isn’t necessarily a good one here. It’s one I’m actually sympathetic to, because it’s something I wish we would have the attitude to more often about much bigger things we’ve done in the past,” Ready said.

Hough argued the schools had repeatedly failed to craft good calendars before Hogan’s order.

“I believe in local control, but at some point when the locals have shown they could not competently do the calendar — when they start school on Aug. 22 and have the kids go back for two or three days of that first week — that’s nonsensical,” Hough told the chamber.

A pre-Labor Day start for schools in Maryland is still far from being set in stone. The bill will next go to the House of Delegates, where it will go through another public process in committee before facing possible amendments in the chamber.

The House of Delegates could modify or oppose the bill, though, it appears there are enough votes to pass it.

If it does pass the second chamber, the governor will have an opportunity to veto or — as he announced last week — have the people take the decision to a petition for referendum, which is the right of all voters to gather signatures in support or opposition to a bill passed by the General Assembly.

The petition would need 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.

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