By DANNY LAYNE
Capital News Service
LANSING — The long Labor Day weekend has now concluded. Students in Michigan public schools have arrived or returned to classrooms.
Businesses around the state are still counting the proceeds and profits from the extended holiday, but the debate over the law mandating school closures on the Friday before Labor Day remains as emotional as ever.
A House bill, first introduced by Rep. Scott Shackleton, R-Petoskey, in 1999 and signed into law by Gov. John Engler that year, mandated the Friday preceding each Labor Day as a day off for public schools in Michigan.
The ban of the Friday classes was originally effective for three school years, 2000-2003, and was seen by many people as a compromise between advocates — primarily Michigan’s travel and tourism industry — and opponents — principally school boards and state parent-teacher organizations. A new House bill, eliminating the sunset, or ending date, in the 1999 law, was introduced by Shackelton in March last year.
It passed the Legislature last fall and the governor signed the bill into law, effectively extending the “Friday off” provision indefinitely.
The debate, according to proponents, opponents and political analysts, is over when Michigan public schools should start the school year and who is ultimately responsible for making those decisions. Travel and tourism industry advocates see a long Labor Day weekend as an opportunity for people to visit and vacation in the state one last time before the school year begins.
Many school board members and the Michigan Parent Teacher Student Association see the law as an undue extension of state government power that impacts school districts’ ability to set and control their annual school calendars.
The MPTSA opposed the original bill back in 1999 and that continued opposition stems from a loss of control over student education on the local level, said Debbie Squires, MTSA’s vice president for legislative services.
“The state PTA passed a resolution earlier this year that opposes any state-ordered delay in starting the school year,” Squires said. “From almost every standpoint, the MPTSA believes that issues like this can be better addressed and handled on each school system’s local level.”
The organization’s resolution specifically opposes any additional or continued state legislation that prohibits the opening of school before Labor Day, or in any other way restricts local school boards’ authority to set the opening dates for classes in each school district.
Squires believes students and families suffer because of delayed school openings or required closures. The Friday off, she stressed, is another day students have to make up later that school year.
“Delaying the opening of school or forcing their closure for even one day only serves to prolong the entire school year,” explained Squires, who also serves as the Huron Valley School Board president. “Schools are already required to conduct classes for a specific number of days each year, and this law just means that schools stay in session longer the following June.”
Tourism and travel officials, such as Peter Fitzsimons, the Petoskey/Harbor Spring/Boyne County Convention and Visitors Bureau director, believe removal of the sunset provision benefits people, businesses and the state.
Measuring the economic impact of the past Labor Day weekend is not yet complete, according to Fitzsimons, but indications are that travel and tourism in northwestern Michigan continues to be a driving force in that area’s economy.
“I don’t have any solid numbers yet, but businesses saw a lot of activity last weekend and it seemed like there was an enormous amount of people of our area,” he said.
Travel and tourism in Michigan is always “weather sensitive,” Fitzsimons added, and industry reports indicate many families seize the opportunity presented by a longer Labor Day weekend to venture and stay in places they might otherwise avoid because of time constraints.
Many tourism-related businesses, such as hotels and resorts, attribute increased sales and activities to that extra day off, according to a state analysis.
“The current prohibition of holding school on the Friday before Labor Day is a sensible approach that benefits the state’s tourism industry and its families,” one nonpartisan analyst wrote while the bill to remove the sunset was being considered.
The summary also indicated emotional opposition to the law, particularly because school boards “lost” control of their school calendars and the day off was mandated for public school students, but not their parents. School sports programs are also unaffected by the law, and some families remain in their home areas because of Friday night sporting events.
“The philosophy, for some, has been that summer is a time for families and friends to enjoy time together,” Fitzsimons added.
“It has been, and continues to be, an emotional and sensitive issue. Because of term limits and the institutional knowledge that goes away every six years as legislators experience (political) turnover, I believe it will continue to debated.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By DANNY LAYNE