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Schools still can’t open before Labor Day

At the start of the 2012 legislative session, momentum was building for the General Assembly to repeal Virginia’s so-called “Kings Dominion law,” which prohibits public schools from opening before Labor Day without special permission.

Legislators had filed 13 bills to rescind the law and let local school boards decide when classes would start. Even Gov. Bob McDonnell weighed in, saying the current restrictions should be lifted.

But by the session’s end, each of those bills had died. And so the law nicknamed after the theme park in Hanover County remains in place: Public schools cannot open before Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

The final nail in the coffin came on March 1, when the Senate Education and Health Committee took up House Bill 1063, sponsored by Delegate Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach. The measure, which had been approved 76-23 by the House, would have allowed school divisions to choose their own opening dates.

On a 6-9 vote, the committee defeated the bill. That might have been expected: A month earlier, the committee rejected a similar Senate proposal.

The General Assembly adopted the Labor Day law in 1986 as a temporary measure “to help Virginia’s tourism industry, whose officials said pre-Labor Day school openings were taking student workers before the tourism season ended,” said Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education. The law became permanent two years later.

Sen. Richard Saslaw, a Springfield Democrat and member of the committee, said he co-sponsored the first attempt to repeal the law shortly after its enactment.

“Every year since then, there’s been a bill put in to repeal this,” Saslaw said. “Every year the bill fails.”

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a co-sponsor of HB 1063, said she thought the bill had a 50-50 chance in the Senate committee.

She said the measure would give teachers more time to instruct students before they take standardized tests and nationally administered exams. For example, high schools nationwide give advanced placement and International Baccalaureate exams on the same day. In school systems that start class before Labor Day, students have an advantage on these tests because of the extra days of education, McClellan said.

“You have our students who are competing on those tests with students who have had two more weeks of instruction, and that’s just not really fair,” she said.

Opponents of HB 1063 included Sanford Wanner, who chairs the Historic Triangle Collaborative, which promotes economic development in Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. He testified before the Senate committee on behalf of Virginia’s tourism industry.

“We are not aware of compelling evidence that opening before Labor Day in Virginia improves student performance when compared to opening after Labor Day, the traditional end of summer,” he said. “The state and local tax revenues generated by the tourism economy helps to fuel the state and local government budgets, as well as the school budgets.”

Some local government officials, such as Hanover County Supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek, also argued for keeping the Labor Day law.

“We need a consistent and dependable tourism season,” Kelly-Wiecek said. “It provides an infusion, an injection of revenue to cash-strapped localities at a time when we’re facing catastrophic declines in revenue.”

Virginia Beach City Council Member Rosemary Wilson said schools there face a $37 million budget shortfall.

“One of the bright stars that we’ve had is our tourism. Our hotel taxes have been up better than they ever have,” Wilson said. “We cannot take those revenues away; our schools need those revenues.”

Proponents of HB 1063 disputed the tourism industry’s claims and argued that the Labor Day law infringed on the authority of local government.

Dana Raphael, a junior at Arlington High School, said one study cited by Virginia’s tourism industry was based on a 2004 survey of 1,234 Tennessee residents.

“If I used this kind of methodology in one of my research papers, I would receive an F,” Raphael said. “What’s right for Arlington County may not be right for Galax, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Chesterfield or Lynchburg, but each locality should get to decide what’s best their students, teachers, families and the larger community. Students must come first.”

Anne Carson, president of the Virginia Parent-Teachers Association, said Virginia parents do not all agree on when the school calendar should begin.

“What [parents] do agree on is that they want the opportunity to decide and advocate what is best for their schedules and communities,” Carson said. “The educational system should not be pushed aside by the private enterprises that seemingly still have thrived in countless other states where schools start in August.”

But Sen. Jeffery McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, a member of the Senate committee, fears that school divisions would mishandle the decision-making power.

“If given the option, I think the school boards will make the decision that would hurt business, would hurt development, and would hurt tourism in a time when we can least afford that,” said McWaters, who voted against HB 1063.

Under the existing law, schools can start before Labor Day if they must frequently close because of inclement weather. Seventy-seven of Virginia’s 132 school divisions received such waivers for this school year. Most of them are in the more rural, less populated western half of Virginia.

The largest school divisions in the Richmond area, Tidewater and Northern Virginia do not qualify for waivers.


Community

Varina Ruritans honor students

The Varina Ruritan Club hosted the winners of its 2014 Environmental Essay contest at its monthly meeting March 11 in Varina.

The contest, in its eighth year, was for the first time open to students in grades 3-5 at Varina Elementary School. (It previously was open to Sandston Elementary School students.)

The meeting included the winners, parents of the winners, Varina Elementary principal Mark Tyler and several teachers who were in charge of the contest at the school. > Read more.

Baseball game to benefit Glen Allen Buddy Ball


For the fifth consecutive year, St. Christopher’s and Benedictine will play a varsity baseball game at Glen Allen's RF&P Park as part of a fundraising effort for the River City Buddy Ball program.

The game will take place Saturday, April 12, at 7 p.m., and the teams hope to raise $3,000 through donations, raffles and other efforts. Admission to the game is free, but fans who attend are asked to donate funds for the Glen Allen Youth Athletic Association's Buddy Ball program, which enables disabled children and teens to play baseball. > Read more.

Highland Springs field to be dedicated in honor of longtime coach Spears

The Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks will dedicate the Highland Springs Little League Majors Field in memory and honor of Rev. Robert “Bob” L. Spears, Jr., on April 12 with a ceremony at the field at 8 a.m.

Spears served the league as a coach and volunteer for 30 years and was praised as a pioneer for equality. His “Finish strong” motto embodied ethical perseverance on the field and in life. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Restaurant watch

Find out how your favorite dining establishments fared during their most recent inspections by the Virginia Department of Health. > Read more.

A fun, fuzzy ride

‘Muppets Most Wanted’ worthy of its franchise

Do Muppets sleep? It’s hard to say.

They don’t really eat (or breathe, as far as anyone can tell). And only occasionally do they have visible, functioning legs.

As far as anyone knows, sleeping might be off the table. And that makes it very hard to accuse the Muppets of sleepwalking through their latest feature, Muppets Most Wanted – even if that’s exactly what’s going on.

Jim Henson’s beloved creations were back in a big way after 2011’s The Muppets, with fame and fortune and even an Oscar, a first for the group (“Rainbow Connection” was nominated, yet somehow failed to collect at the ’79 ceremony). > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


There’s no excuse for kids and families to not get out of the house this weekend! The Armour House and Gardens has an “Egg-celent Egg-venture” planned and Reynolds Community College will host the Reynolds Family Palooza. If you’re looking to give back to your community, Dorey Park will host Walk Like MADD and coordinators2inc will present the annual Kids Walk for Kids. And a special event for children with special needs will be on Sunday – the Caring Bunny will be at Virginia Center Commons. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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