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Va. Board Allows 2 Districts To Begin Classes Before Labor Day

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In a blow to Virginia's influential tourism industry, the state board of education has granted the first exemptions to an eight-year-old law requiring that school classes begin after Labor Day.

The board last week approved petitions filed by the Fairfax County and Loudoun County school districts, which asked the state to waive the mandate.

Tourism-industry leaders say an early return to classes cuts into the lucrative business generated during the last weeks of summer.

Other states, such as Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota, have similar laws fixing the beginning of classes after Labor Day--measures that have pitted educators against tourism officials.

In its 5-to-3 vote, the Virginia state board granted a one-year waiver to both the Fairfax County and Loudoun County schools in suburban Washington.

In granting the waivers, the board accepted the districts' arguments that they were facing late closing dates for the current school year as a result of the unusual number of bad-weather days and the post-Labor Day starting date. The Fairfax and Loudoun districts were closed for 10 and 13 extra days, respectively, over the winter.

The state board also noted that Labor Day this year falls in the same week as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Because the Loudoun and Fairfax schools chose to follow the board's recommendation to suspend classes for the first two days of the Jewish holiday, their starting date would have been pushed to Sept. 8 without the waivers. To meet the requirement of 180 school days a year, classes next year would not have ended until June 20.

'Higher Priority'

With the waivers approved, the two districts' schools may open as early as Aug. 29, a Fairfax County school board spokesman said.

"This is something that our school board has been requesting for five years, and we are proud of the state board for showing this is a higher priority than the tourist industry,'' Superintendent Robert R. Spillane of the Fairfax County schools said after the vote last week.

The Virginia school-opening law requires schools to begin classes after Labor Day unless they were closed for 10 days or more each year for a period of several years due to energy shortages, power outages, or other emergency situations. Nineteen school districts have been allowed to begin school earlier because they met those conditions; they did not require the waivers granted to Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Dubbed by critics as the "Kings Dominion emergency relief act,'' in a reference to a popular amusement park in the state, the Virginia law was passed in 1986 largely to accommodate the state's tourism industry. The industry relies heavily on high school students to work in amusement parks, hotels, and other travel-related businesses in the summer months, and it likes the idea of the family-vacation season extending through Labor Day.

Blow to Tax Receipts?

Industry representatives said the waivers granted by the state board will have a negative impact on travel-related attractions and services, which generate $9 billion in business in the state each year.

"I think the legislators pretty well understand that the state runs off of tax revenue, and the industry is a major, major contributor,'' said Herbert J. Clegg, the chief operations officer for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Industry Association.

"I don't know how you can support education if you don't maximize opportunity to generate tax revenue; it doesn't make sense to me,'' he said.

Mr. Clegg, whose association represents some 28,000 companies, also pointed to the value of the summer jobs tourism provides to young people.

Many educators, meanwhile, welcomed the state board's decision and said they hoped that it represents the first step toward local control of the school calendar.

"The calendar should be a local option, not mandated,'' said Kelly Peaks Horner, the president of the Fairfax Education Association, who has lobbied unsuccessfully to overturn the law each year since it was enacted.

The waivers granted by the state board, Ms. Horner said, give educators the opportunity to prove to the legislature that the tourism industry "will not shut down'' if the school calendar is altered.

Though it is only for one year, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick of the Loudoun County schools said the waiver is welcome because it will enable the district to avoid having to cut instruction short.

"Clearly we can't gain back next year the time we lost this year, but we can try to build a calendar to insure as many good days of education as we can,'' Mr. Hatrick said.

Following the approval of the exemptions for Fairfax and Loudoun counties, some other Virginia districts indicated that they will apply for waivers next year.

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