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Sponsors turn in 16,500 signatures for ballot measure on later school start

BISMARCK — Supporters of changing North Dakota law to force schools districts to start classes after Labor Day said they delivered about 16,500 signatures to the secretary of state’s office on Wednesday with hopes of putting the question to voters in November.

The measure needs 13,452 valid signatures to get on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Kelly Heinert of Mandan, co-chair of the sponsoring committee, said based on the support received during the signature gathering process, “I feel very confident come November it will pass.”

If voters approve the measure, North Dakota would join Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia as one of a handful of states that require a post-Labor Day start, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Most schools in North Dakota start classes before Labor Day, with the most common starting date this year being Aug. 25, according to Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel. A few schools are starting in September, including Bismarck, which starts Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day.

“So there’s a precedent set,” Heinert said.

Measure supporters believe students should be able to enjoy the outdoors and have more of a summer when the weather is nice in late August, he said.

“It’s just a quality of life issue,” he said.

Co-chair Linda Striebel of Bismarck said they’ve also have heard concerns from teachers, especially in rural areas, about the effects of an earlier school start and hot conditions on students in schools with no air conditioning.

“These kids are not learning at the end of August,” she said.

A DPI official has said the department believes districts should be allowed to set their own school calendars. Heinert said districts would still have control of their calendars, only with a later start date. He said a lot of Minnesota districts squeeze in their school year between Labor Day and Memorial Day, though he acknowledged that isn’t possible some years when Labor Day lands later in September.

Heinert said the sponsors are “just a group of parents” and aren’t planning to buy campaign ads to promote the measure, but they will support any outside groups if they decide to do so.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger has 35 days to determine if the signatures are sufficient to place the measure on the ballot.

Mike Nowatzki

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