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Iowa House settles on Aug. 23 school start date

BY ALEKSANDRA VUJICIC | MARCH 25, 2015 5:00 AM

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School administrators still don’t have a clear answer on when to begin their school calendars, but the Iowa House has approved Aug. 23 as the earliest date.

The bill passed, 71-29, on Tuesday with bipartisan support. But before the legislation can go to the governor’s desk, a compromise must be reached with the Senate, which has approved a bill that would give full local control to school districts in determining the first day of classes.

The bill also included an amendment to allow elementary and secondary schools to keep year-round calendars instead of banning them in the state, but high schools were not included.

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, said he has worked on this legislation for the past two months, keeping in touch with the governor’s staff to find a point of compromise.

“I don’t think I have any wiggle room in this,” he said. “I think I’ve pushed the governor and his staff as far as they’re willing to go.”

Forristall was told Aug. 23 was the earliest possible date the administration would approve and was asked not to go any further.

He added that statewide polls have shown a split in preferences: there are some people who feel very strongly that schools should be able to set their own date, and other people who think schools shouldn’t start before Labor Day.

“Nobody is entirely happy with what came out of this bill,” he said. “But most, I think, will find it as acceptable.”

Regardless of differing opinions, Forristall said the bill is at a point where there is an obvious compromise possible.

“The Senate really has an easy decision,” he said. “They can choose to accept our amendments to the bill, or they can choose to have the current law remain as it is, so that school may not start before the week in which Sept. 1 occurs.”

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said that when he has talked to colleagues in the Senate, they said they obviously still want local control, but if they had to, they could live with Aug. 23.

“I assume that in the end, that probably is what will happen,” he said.

For roughly three decades, state law has required schools to open their doors the week of Sept. 1, but most schools were almost always granted a waiver to begin the school year earlier.

The starting-date debate became a hot topic in the state Legislature after the Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Department of Education announced that the state would no longer grant automatic waivers any longer, and the guidelines would become stricter.

The House’s approved starting date is also the last day of the Iowa State Fair, and much of the debate has revolved around tourist groups contending that earlier start dates interfere with the end of their summer season.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, a ranking member of the Senate Education Committee told The Daily Iowan that the issue of school starting dates comes with more urgency as school boards and their administrators are crunched for time to get their schedules set next year.

Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, the head of the House Education Committee, said he is optimistic the Senate will decide that Aug. 23 is better than the current law.

“It’s kind of down to ‘do you want this or do you want nothing?’ ” he said.


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