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Kyle Potter, Published August 20 2013

School leaders defend mid- to late-August school start

FARGO – Why does school start tomorrow in Fargo?

The Forum posed the question Fargo parents are no doubt asking local and state school officials, and the answers vary.

A start in mid- to late-August is the only way to ensure school is out before June rolls in – a priority for Fargo public schools. Football and volleyball schedules, pushed up due to an early winter, may play a part, too.

With shuffling holidays, mandated teacher training and the occasional break, putting together a schedule that meets the state’s required 175 days of classes is a puzzle.

“When you look at the calendar, there aren’t many days that we have to work with,” said Fargo School Board member Rusty Papachek, who added that several school districts statewide start earlier.

“We would love all to be able to fit it into Labor Day and Memorial Day,” he said. “With the number of dates that we need to fit … it just physically can’t be done.”

West Fargo school bells won’t ring in the new school year until Tuesday. The district generally lines up its schedule with Fargo schools, but pushed its start date back this year to accommodate the new Liberty Middle School, said Assistant Superintendent Allen Burgad.

Burgad guessed that the state’s rich agricultural history played a role in shaping school schedules. That’s the case throughout the U.S., he said, where nine-month school schedules that carve out room for harvesting are the norm.

Each school board now sets its own schedule. That could soon change if an effort to push the start date for all schools after Labor Day succeeds. Parents in Bismarck and Mandan are collecting signatures to put the question to voters in 2014.

If the group collects the required 13,452 signatures to put it on the ballot and a majority of voters approve, North Dakota would join neighboring Minnesota and two other states with a mandated post-Labor Day start date.

Fargo schools Superintendent Jeff Schatz said a September start would force the school year into June. It’s been a priority for the school board’s calendar committee to “get out of school before June so people can have a full summer,” he said.

“If dictated, you would be taking away local control of their calendars,” he said of the petition to push back the start date. “Local school districts have always cherished that.”

Bob Marthaller, assistant superintendent for the state Department of Public Instruction, said he’s confident school boards can adapt if they’re forced to push back their start dates, but it’s already a challenge for some districts to lay out athletic and activity schedules with an August start.

“The calendar, in terms of good weather, is pretty short. It gets to be problematic for how those schedules are arranged,” Marthaller said.

It’s unclear whether North Dakota schools could get a waiver to start earlier like in Minnesota, where districts can qualify if they have four-day weeks or need an early start on costly construction projects.

No Moorhead or Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton public schools are starting early this year. School starts on Sept. 3 in both districts.

No AC? No problem

Petition organizers on Monday pointed to the extra family vacation time a later start date would bring, plus avoiding the late August heat. The last week of July and first week of August generally have the highest maximum temperatures in the Fargo area, according to National Weather Service average temperature data.

Still, Schatz said the district monitors temperatures at the start of each year, especially in the six elementary schools that don’t have air-conditioning systems: McKinley, Horace Mann, Clara Barton, Roosevelt, Madison and Lewis and Clark.

The National Weather Service’s forecasted highs of 83 degrees and 85 degrees for Thursday and Friday, respectively, won’t beat the heat at the start of last school year, Schatz said.

At Lewis and Clark Elementary, Principal Jason Cresep said school staff members make sure kids drink plenty of water and keep their eyes peeled during recess for any problems.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502