Florida school start dates: Disney may block bill that gives Florida schools start date flexibility

TALLAHASSEE — Mickey Mouse might be blocking St. Lucie County schools from starting the academic year earlier and graduating students sooner.

A bill floating in the Legislature would give districts more flexibility over when they start and finish the school year. Most currently can't start the year more than two weeks before Labor Day. A-rated districts get more scheduling flexibility.

SB 806 by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would change that by letting districts start school early enough to finish their final exams five days before Christmas.

"I have kids in high school, they came back after the Christmas holidays and five days later took end of course exams," Stargel said. "I think it just makes more sense to have them finish before Christmas."

But the hotel and lodging industries — and, specifically, Walt Disney World — aren't happy with the bill.

Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said Disney hates the proposal because the late summer is vacation time for Florida families. Stargel added that many high schoolers work at Disney parks.

"We are trying to work with the industry," Stargel said. "And the best way to do that is to make sure we're not trying to start school in July, and taking from the summer, because we're a tourist state."

On the flip side, St. Lucie schools want to have the same scheduling options as better graded districts. St. Lucie's district grade dropped to a C in 2012 after three B ratings in a row.

District Assistant Superintendent Mark Rendell said that some St. Lucie high school seniors also have trouble getting an early start on college because their semester ends in mid-January. That makes it nearly impossible for students who graduate from high school in the fall semester to start college in the spring, he said.

"That doesn't line up with the community colleges for dual enrollment," Rendell said.

Stargel's bill hasn't gotten a hearing this legislative session, which ends May 3. But Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, has moved the proposal past one House committee.

This school year, St. Lucie's fall classes started Aug. 20. The first semester officially ended Jan. 22. Indian River State College, for instance, started its spring semester Jan. 7.

Indian River, which dropped to a B district in 2012, also started Aug. 20. Its first semester of 2012-13 ended Jan. 17. Indian River — traditionally an A-rated district — tried an Aug. 12 start in 2005-06, but ran into problems.

Martin, an A-grade district, started classes Aug. 15 this year. The district wrapped up its first semester before Christmas on Dec. 21.

The bill has been introduced before, but tourism interests have kept it at bay, Stargel said. Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and a top education lawmaker, couldn't get the bill past a single committee in 2012. Its House companion bill didn't move, either.

In the 2007-08 school year, the law requiring the school year to start 14 days before Labor Day took effect. Save Our Summers, a South Florida advocacy group, helped beat back a push to repeal the new rule in 2007.

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