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Braves, Six Flags wade into school calendar debate | News

CUMBERLAND — After two meetings in which they heard teachers groups advocate for local control, Senate study committee members looking at mandating later start dates for public schools were urged by the Atlanta Braves and executives from several theme parks to lengthen Georgia summers.

Derek Schiller, president and CEO of the Braves, told the 10 committee members present that more than half of those who attend ballgames at SunTrust Park are children who come with their parents. But as summer vacations get shorter, he said, there is a limited window for them to come see the games.

“We have in baseball amongst the smallest timeframe of a summer compared to any of our other baseball teams,” Schiller said, addressing the committee in a conference room on the third floor of the Braves’ executive office at the Battery Atlanta. “That definitely does have an impact on us. In fact, we see a surge in attendance when games are occurring when school is not in session.”

He also said teens who work at the park during the summer months learn essential life skills that benefit them down the road.

Schiller was followed by an all-star lineup of theme park executives from across Georgia, including Dale Kaetzel, park president of Six Flags over Georgia and White Water; Bill Doyle, president and CEO of Callaway Resort and Gardens; and Michael Dombrowski, vice president and general manager of Stone Mountain Park.

All three said their businesses relied on student labor during the summer months, with Kaetzel saying his workforce drops more than 58 percent when students return to class on Aug. 1.

The majority of his high school employees, he said, comes from nine counties that operate on seven different school calendars.

He also touted the “special role a summer job plays” in the development of young people from across the state.

“The impact a summer job makes on their lives is real and it’s tangible,” he said. “I see it every single day … Many of these team members are young people and we are their first job. We complement their high school and college education with soft skills such as training and real-life experiences in interviewing, communication, math skills and dependability… ”

South Cobb lawmaker wants later school start date

State Rep. Erica Thomas, D-Austell, also came out in favor of a state-mandated later start date, saying parents in her community often struggle to find affordable childcare during the six weeks of student breaks built into the Cobb School District’s calendar.

“Over 70 percent of my district is on free and reduced lunch,” Thomas said. “(For) a lot of these students, and I hate to say this, the best meals they get is when they’re at school … When we have all these different weeks where we’re out of school, these kids aren’t getting the nutrition they need.”

As for childcare, Thomas said some of her constituents must choose between taking off from work several weeks out of the year to look after their children or paying for daycare and leaving themselves short when bills are due.

Last year, Thomas said she started her own fall camp to look after children for the week they were out of school.

“We were at capacity and one thing that I want to also point out to you all is that I had a lot, a lot of special needs kids in my camp,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of camps during the summer that help with special needs programs, but there are not a lot of special needs programs during the year.”

The lone speaker to advocate for local control Thursday was Gretchen Walton, the Cobb School District’s compliance and legislative affairs officer.

Both Cobb and Marietta’s school boards have included in next year’s legislative priorities a desire to set their own academic calendars rather than having state lawmakers mandate a post-Labor Day start date.

“School calendars should remain under local control,” Walton said. “We do have an elected body that makes these decisions … And our teachers overwhelmingly in a survey said they wanted the calendar that we now have.”

As a former teacher, Walton said she and her colleagues would use their breaks to assist students.

And since Cobb switched to a calendar with more breaks, Walton said the district has seen student discipline rates decrease and student attendance increase.

Senator skeptical about school surveys

Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, pushed back by asking whether the superintendent pitches the calendar to the school board or vice-versa.

Walton said it was the former.

“In my experience, most of the time it’s been the unelected superintendent who’s made the decision and recommended it, and I can’t think of a time they were overruled by the school board,” Wilkinson said.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who chairs the study committee, questioned the wording on the calendar surveys sent out to teachers and parents, asking whether they asked if respondents would prefer to maintain local control or if they asked whether they would prefer longer summers.

“Was the Labor Day start date ever an option?” he asked.

Walton said she couldn’t answer definitively.

Wilkinson — whose father was a classroom teacher, high school principal and county superintendent, whose wife is a retired kindergarten teacher and whose daughter teaches middle school language arts — said the calendar debate isn’t a battle between school board members and the business community, but what’s best for students.

“I really do think about the child that gets on the bus in Statenville, in Echols County — one of those big rural counties in South Georgia — in the first week of August when its 130 degrees on an un-air-conditioned bus,” he said. “And they ride for an hour and a half in the afternoon.”

Wilkinson said if some of Cobb’s school officials would hop on a bus in the dead of summer three or four times a year, it may be “an eye-opening experience for them.”

A date for the fourth meeting of the Senate study committee has not been set, but it’s expected to occur before Jan. 1.

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