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N.H. Schools Stick to Early Starts After Sununu's 'Save Our Summers' Push

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A year after Gov. Chris Sununu's unsuccessful push to prolong school summer vacation until Labor Day, the vast majority of New Hampshire communities are sticking with their earlier start dates.

Schools in 80 percent of districts will be starting before Labor Day this year, about the same percentage as last year. Four districts that started earlier last year will now start after Labor Day: Gilford, Gilmanton, Milton and Waterville Valley. But two other districts — Hinsdale and Pemi Baker Regional — went the other way, moving from post-Labor Day openings to earlier dates.

Sununu, a Republican, created a "Save Our Summers Study Commission" last August to examine how a mandatory post-Labor Day start date would affect tourism, academic performance, athletic programs and other areas.

In December, the group issued a report without taking sides, though it emphasized the economic benefit and suggested ways to alleviate opponents' concerns. Subsequent legislation to enact a mandate, however, was retained in the Senate Education Committee for reconsideration next year.

Businesses tied to tourism said the earlier start dates mean fewer customers and teenage staff, and an economist estimated that starting school after Labor Day would have a $24 million to $34 million economic impact. But organizations representing teachers, administrators and school boards all opposed the idea, citing a desire to maintain decision-making power.

"There was a lot of pushback in terms of local control," said Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat who sponsored the bill. "But we're such a tourism-oriented state and have so many businesses that rely on students to staff their enterprises during the summer, it seems to me it's very short-sighted not to be able to have a way to have schools start after Labor Day."

Superintendent Mark Halloran oversees eight schools in seven towns. Six will open Monday, one will open Tuesday and one will open Sept. 3. The late starter will be Waterville Valley Elementary School, where officials decided to revert to its traditional post-holiday opening date after a few years of starting in August. The resort town attracts a lot of Massachusetts tourists who participate in a parks and recreation program housed in the school, Halloran said.

"This year, they really did have a conversation regarding the governor's initiative, and they just decided quite frankly, they were a resort community and they were going to start after Labor Day," he said.

In contrast, another school Halloran oversees — Plymouth Regional High School in the Pemi Baker Regional district — switched from opening after Labor Day last year to a pre-holiday start this year. Representatives from several nearby tourist attractions spoke at a public hearing in favor of keeping the later date, he said, but parents argued an earlier start better fit with sports schedules.

"I think the board was very sympathetic to the business issues, but many of the parents were feeling like, let's get the kids in," Halloran said.Sununu grew up in Salem, home to an amusement park that supported the proposed mandate, and once ran the Waterville Valley ski area. In a statement this week, he said he still supports the mandate idea.

"As our Save our Summers Study Commission noted, starting school after Labor Day would increase economic activity, provide students an opportunity at work experience, allow for families to spend extra time together, and raise state revenues," he said.

A recent review by the Pew Research Center found significant variation in school start dates across the country. In general, earlier starts are more common in the South and Southwest, while later starts are more common along the East Coast, upper Midwest and Northwest.

In some states, the tourism industry has played a role. For example, a 1986 Virginia law named for an amusement park bars most schools from opening before Labor Day, though it was amended this year to permit openings of up to two weeks earlier as long as students are given a four-day weekend for Labor Day.

-- Holly Ramer, Associated Press

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

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