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Parents start push for later school start

MANDAN -- The 98-degree temperature here Monday, just days before most North Dakota schools are back in session, helped a group of concerned parents illustrate the need to start school after Labor Day.

"We can't change the weather, but we might be able to change the school calendar," said Kelly Heinert during a news conference to kickstart an initiative to put the issue on the November 2014 ballot for a statewide vote.

Heinert, a father of three from Mandan, and Linda Striebel, a mother of three from Bismarck, are teaming up to push the grassroots effort that will need 13,452 valid signatures for the issue to be placed on the ballot. If enacted by voters, state law would require all North Dakota school districts to start school after the Labor Day weekend.

The group is organizing its 25-member sponsoring committee and has a rough draft of what they plan to submit to the secretary of state's office in early October. Once they do, they will have one year to collect the signatures.

The biggest concerns for them is the hot temperatures at the end of August and spending the summer time with family.

Heinert said kids and families need to use the summer months rather than have students sit in a hot classroom.

Striebel said she has spoken to a handful of teachers, specifically in rural areas, where schools don't have a form of air conditioning.

"They mention how difficult it is," she said. "The kids are miserable and not focused."

Striebel handed out a seven-day forecast comparison from the end of the 2012 school year in May and the beginning of this year. The high for the last week of school in May was 70 degrees on May 24 compared to this week's high of 98 degrees today, the first day Mandan teachers are back in the classroom.

The organizers haven't spoken to the Department of Public Instruction or school districts, but hope they will support the measure.

Bob Marthaller, assistant superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction, said the department believes the school calendar should be left up to each school district.

"This is a local matter and should be dealt with as it always has been, through local school boards and communities who we feel are best able to make that decision based on what's occurring at the local level," Marthaller said.

But if it is enacted, Marthaller said school districts would learn to adjust.

"As we always do in North Dakota, we seem to find a way to make it work." he said.

Asked whether this would create a control issue between the state and local school districts, Heinert asked, "is there really local control now?" pointing out how the North Dakota High School Activities Association drives the calendar for school districts.

Heinert said the additional days at the end of summer also will help families with their end-of-summer vacations. Sara Otte Coleman, director of the North Dakota Tourism Department, agreed.

Otte Coleman said she was happy to hear about Monday's news conference. She said the change in schedule needs to be lead by parents and teachers. "They are the ones who can really make a difference."

She highlighted how the warmer weather is better for the tourism industry, which is also an economic generator that helps fund education.

Agriculture also stands to benefit, she said, as kids can spend more time on the farm during harvest.

If enacted, North Dakota would join Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota as one of a few states with a post-Labor Day mandate, according to the Minnesota School Board Association.

The groups Facebook page, Start ND School After Labor Day, has 2,680 supporters.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.