Late Labor Day boosts tourism, tests schools

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

This year’s particularly late start of school has reignited debate over the state law that prohibits most Michigan public schools from starting until after Labor Day.

The statute became law in 2006 at the urging of Michigan’s tourism industry — the state’s third largest. While this summer’s figures haven’t been tallied, tourism last year generated 214,000 jobs, $19.5 billion in economic activity and more than $1 billion in state tax revenue, mostly in July and August, according to Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association.

Advocates say the law, which extends the family travel season by one last weekend — a three-day period for many workers — is important to their bottom line.

The venerable 240-room Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is full this weekend and was full every day in the week preceding Labor Day.

“Now it is robust and packed in deep season, without having to offer discounts. We only have seven or eight peak weekends, so hurting one is something we would not support,” said Ken Hayward, the hotel’s executive vice president.

Camille Jourden-Mark, general manager of the 250-acre Michigan’s Adventure theme park in Muskegon County, said before the law was changed the exodus of high school workers going back to school forced the park to close earlier.

“In the past, when schools would go back earlier in August, we actually used to close the week before Labor Day weekend,” she said.

But many educators question whether the tradeoff is worth it and say local districts should have the final say.

“Anytime you try one size fits all, it doesn’t work,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. “I know there are some tourism issues here, so that’s why if there is an area that really relies on students working through Labor Day or specific tourism offerings, they should be able to decide for themselves when to start school.”

Because Labor Day is so late this year — the latest day possible, since the holiday is the first Monday of September — some districts will not end classes until the middle or end of June. That has created a challenge for some districts that have to rearrange summer school or other programs.

Most students participating in fall sports began practice and games long before Labor Day. So most schools were ready to get underway academically before the holiday, but couldn’t because of the law, said Wigent.

Jackson Public Schools has been looking for ways to move all students to a start date in August. This would allow dual enrollment students — those taking high school and college classes simultaneously — to line up their start and end dates with college, as well as make sure the first semester ended before the Christmas holiday break.

“This is really an issue of local control. How can we get our community in charge of our schools again?” said Jeff Beal, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, which serves 5,500 students at 13 sites. “What’s right for Jackson County may not be the same thing as what’s right for Traverse City, or Petoskey or Mackinac.”

Another challenge, said Beal, is that once the students and teachers complete state-required standardized testing in the spring, they are ready to be done with school.

Lawmakers have introduced a bill to end the pre-Labor Day prohibition, even as 100 districts have received approval for earlier starts in at least some of their schools, according to the Michigan Department of Education. Thirty-four of them requested waivers for the first time, the department said.

A 2013 effort to change the law went nowhere. Leaders of tourism and economic interests, which hold considerable sway in Lansing, believe the same will be true this year.

“Our sense is there are not the votes there at this time or to significantly modify that,” said Steve Yencich, Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association president.

Dormina Davis of Macomb Township has three children, two of whom will be headed back to school on Tuesday. She says she’d rather have them go back after Labor Day.

“We lived in Florida for so many years, and they went back in August and they got out in May,” she said. “With us moving back here, I think it would be kind of odd that they would go back to school for four days, have that long weekend and come back.”

“Braylon is excited. This is his first year going into middle school. He’s already packed up his book bag,” Davis said of her 11-year-old. “(Darden), the 14-year-old, he’s kind of over it. He plays football and basketball, so he’s excited for that.”

Critics say families can still enjoy a long holiday weekend and start school earlier.

Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, and 17 co-sponsors introduced a bill in March to allow districts to set the date for starting school. But in an effort to keep both sides happy, schools that chose to start before Labor Day would have to close the Friday before Labor Day — extending the three-day weekend to four.

“It hurts kids more than anything,” Heise said of the current law, because teachers have to reteach what was forgotten over the summer.

An early start and a long Labor Day weekend already is the case at some schools, like the three Oakland County campuses of the International Academy that have received the green light to start before Labor Day.

Generally, districts can seek a state-approved waiver only if they operate a year-round school or align high school curriculums with Advanced Placement courses.

Those with waivers include the Oakland IA, which is a public high school, and Detroit charters Madison-Carver, Lincoln King and Washington-Parks Academies.

International Academy is a public baccalaureate high school with campuses in Troy, Bloomfield Hills and White Lake Township. The three Detroit schools are K-8 schools operated by Cornerstone Charter Academies.

Charlie Wollborg, a father of two from Lake Orion, says keeping the school year start at bay until after Labor Day is good for families and for the tourism industry.

“From a family standpoint, that last trip of summer is the final farewell and it’s a blast,” Wollborg said. “As a business owner, I know the seasons for those (up north) businesses is three months, so if you can give them an extra week or two, it means a lot to them.

“One of the greatest memories we’ve got with them, is climbing the Sleeping Bear Dunes and our 7-year-old screaming, ‘I’m the king of the world,’ ” he said.

“I wouldn’t trade that for getting out a week earlier in June.”

John Barnes is a west Michigan freelance writer.