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As most Minnesota students wring the last bit of freedom out of their summer break, a few of their peers are already catching the bus, pulling out fresh school supplies and settling into their classrooms.

Though the vast majority of the state’s schools won’t be back in session until after Labor Day — a requirement under state law — a few districts granted special waivers are getting a head start on the new school year. First up: the Southland School District, near the Iowa border in southeast Minnesota, where some students started Monday with learning conferences and all students were back in class on Wednesday. This week, students in a dozen more school districts, most of them in southern or west-central Minnesota, will join them.

By the time most schools open on Sept. 3, 26 districts around the state already will have their school year well underway. Unlike in recent years, however, few students in the metro area will be back early; Minneapolis Public Schools are returning to a post-Labor Day start for the first time in six years, and just one suburban district, Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools, is sending some of its students back early to accommodate construction in the spring and summer.

Overall, the number of districts that sought early start waivers dipped slightly this year, and many granted a waiver still opted for a typical September start. But the perennial discussion about flexibility in school calendars has showed little sign of disappearing.

After the past school year, in which a particularly cold and snowy winter threatened districts’ ability to get in enough instructional days, some lawmakers and school leaders say they expect the debate over starting before or after Labor Day will continue into next year’s legislative session.

“That’s an interest that has never waned, never gone away,” said Kirk Schneid­awind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. “Local governments, local school boards who set the [school] calendar feel they should have the authority to set the start and end dates of the calendar year.”

Changing traditions?

Minnesota is one of only a few states that require schools to start after Labor Day.

The law was drafted with the input of resort owners and others, who said a shorter summer for students would shrink a needed labor force and reduce attendance at the State Fair. It has only a few exceptions, including for districts accommodating a construction or remodeling project that costs at least $400,000, or for districts along the state line that want to match their schedules with those of schools in neighboring states. Occasionally, there are other special situations, like when the Eastern Carver County School District modified its school year in 2016 to accommodate the Ryder Cup golf tournament.

Minneapolis schools, meanwhile, attempted a multiyear experiment to see if an earlier start and longer school year would help shore up the district’s budget and raise student achievement. (The schedule change had minimal impact on either goal, and an overwhelming majority of parents surveyed wanted to return to a post-Labor Day start.)

This year, state lawmakers proposed two separate bills — neither of them ultimately successful — that would have allowed more districts to start before Labor Day. Some were particularly interested in helping schools prepare for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, in which Labor Day will fall later than usual.

Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, said she introduced a bill giving all schools the flexibility to start before Labor Day to ensure districts don’t end up scrambling to make up snow days at the end of the year — and that the Legislature doesn’t end up having to sort out a last-minute plan to forgive missed days, like it did this year.

“I think we definitely have to seriously look at the 2020-2021 school year, because I don’t want to have to go through another snow days bill,” she said.

Lobbying for later start

Youakim said she expects another debate in the 2020 session but believes changing state law will be an uphill battle. Leaders in the hospitality, grocery and gas station industries, along with representatives from the State Fair, have lobbied against pushing back the start of the school year. In addition to fears about shrinking the youthful summer labor force or threatening fair traditions, parents and families have also voiced concerns about changing holiday and vacation plans.

In the Southland district, attended by about 450 students, middle school and high school Principal Scott Hall said there was some consternation about this year’s early start. (Voters in the district passed a bond referendum last fall, and a major construction project will be underway this year and next summer.) There were worries about vacations and State Fair entries, but Hall said school leaders are trying to work with families and students.

“As a district we’re being as flexible and understanding as we possibly can,” he said.

Working around fair, MEA

Elsewhere, however, early start has become a regular transition. Springfield Public Schools, about an hour’s drive west of Mankato, have started in August for a decade, and this year classes will begin Monday.

Superintendent Keith Kottke said the district seeks the annual waiver based on academic benefits of an altered school calendar; the district avoids major interruptions to curriculum by being able to end the first quarter of classes just before the annual October break for the Minnesota Educator Academy teachers’ conference and ends the first semester before the winter holiday break.

Kottke said the district starts the year with two four-day weeks to accommodate students who participate in the State Fair and runs into few attendance problems.

Plus, he said, operating under a different calendar from most schools in the state means Springfield can nab top speakers and trainers for teachers before they’re already booked elsewhere.

“We’ve been able to find some great professional development and speakers that are available because we’re not on the same schedule,” he said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790