Md. comptroller to collect signatures in bid to push back school starting date


Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot appears with his wife, Anne Maher. (Photo by Rebecca D'Angelo for the Washington Post)
August 8, 2014

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has earned a reputation as an agitator during his time in office, plans to launch a petition drive next week to persuade lawmakers to embrace a pet cause of his: delaying the opening of public schools until after Labor Day.

Franchot (D) is planning an event Thursday on the boardwalk of Ocean City, one of the state’s top tourism destinations, to kick off a “Let Summer Be Summer” campaign. His aim: collecting 10,000 signatures from Maryland citizens before the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

The event coincides with an annual week-long conference of county leaders from across Maryland, and Franchot plans to hand out flying discs and sand buckets adorned with the campaign logo at the conference site.

The cause is hardly new for Franchot, who says that the post-Labor Day mandate would be good for the state’s economy as well as for families seeking to spend more time together. What’s different now is that he actually has some real momentum on his side.

In May, a state task force, with most members appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), voted 11 to 4 in favor of requiring the state’s 24 school systems to push back their start date into September, reversing a trend of further encroachments into summer.

“I’m not a good person to handicap what the legislature might do, but we’ve certainly made a lot of progress during the last year,” Franchot said in an interview Friday. “This has gone from a sidebar issue to something that is going to be seriously considered.”

Franchot, a former Montgomery County delegate, said he is hopeful that the signatures he collects in coming months will help push lawmakers in his direction. Plans call for gathering names at hotels and resorts in Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake, another Maryland tourist attraction, as well as at various fairs and festivals in the state.

Not everyone is wild about the idea — most notably, several groups of educators. Last month, a letter raising concerns was sent to O’Malley and legislative leaders by the Maryland State Education Association, the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

The groups questioned the loss of local authority over the school calendar as well as the effect a later start would have on teacher training and on teachers’ ability to prepare students for mandated testing.

In Friday’s interview, Franchot characterized the opposition as largely “the elite folks of the educational establishment.” (An aide later clarified that Franchot’s characterization did not include the state’s teachers lobby, saying that many rank-and-file teachers are on Franchot’s side both because they appreciate a break and an opportunity to get a second job if they want.)

Among those who are most solidly with Franchot are leaders of the tourism industry in Ocean City, including G. Hale Harrison of the Harrison Group, which owns and operates 10 oceanfront hotels.

“Summer vacation is a very valuable institution, and I think it’s definitely worth preserving,” said Harrison, who was a member of the state task force. “It’s a huge issue in Ocean City — our livelihoods depend on it.”

Harrison said that among task force members, there was some skepticism of the post-Labor Day mandate when discussion began. But the more the group examined the school calendar and other issues, the more members agreed that a later start date makes sense, he said.

The issue will ultimately be decided by a new governor — O’Malley is term-limited and will step down in January — and a legislature with many new members after the November elections. Franchot said he hopes that the petition drive proves helpful.

“We want to let voters communicate directly with the new legislature and the governor,” he said.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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