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Hogan, lawmakers at odds over start of school year

Gov. Larry Hogan, at a Thursday news conference at which he said he would not back down on his order that Maryland public schools begin their year after Labor Day. (Bryan P. Sears)

Gov. Larry Hogan, at a Thursday news conference at which he said he would not back down on his order that Maryland public schools begin their year after Labor Day. (Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Larry Hogan could be headed to a ballot box showdown over starting schools before or after Labor Day.

Hogan, speaking to reporters, said he would immediately propose a bill that would make his nearly three-year executive order law. But the governor drew a line in the sand, warning lawmakers that he would force the issue before voters if they passed their own bill that reversed his 2016 order.

“Marylanders will have the deciding vote on this one way or another,” said Hogan.

Just a few hours before the Senate took up its own bill reversing Hogan’s order, the governor offered a carrot in an attempt to save the post-Labor Day school start in Maryland.

“Our bill will offer genuine local control over this important issue as opposed to the legislation currently before the Senate masquerading under the guise of more local control, which would actually do the opposite of what local citizens want and instead empower a handful of unaccountable local bureaucrats and administrators to make that decision,” said Hogan.

Hogan called the effort in the legislature “misguided and misinformed.”

The bill, which was not immediately available, would make an order calling for schools to start the academic year after Labor Day and end no later than June 15, according to Hogan.

School systems desiring to alter that schedule would be required to put the issue before voters in those respective jurisdictions, Hogan said.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, called his bill “the ultimate referendum” on the issue.

“I can’t control what the governor does,” said Pinsky, chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “I haven’t been able to do it so far. Sending this back to the locals is in fact a referendum. We are saying you all decide at the very closest level. I don’t know what they’re afraid of. “

But Hogan brought the metaphorical stick to the news conference, telling reporters he was prepared to go to the court of public opinion and the ballot box should the General Assembly “be foolish enough” to pass its legislation that would unshackle local school systems from the mandates of Hogan’s order.

“Let me also be clear that if their bill passes without giving local citizens control there will be a petition to referendum,” Hogan said. “They will gather the required signatures from one corner of the state to the other. It will be placed on the ballot and there is a 100 percent chance that the voters will overturn any action by the legislature with a more than 70 percent vote, and school after Labor Day will remain the law in this state.”

The governor would not commit to vetoing the bill that overrides his order if it arrived on his desk as an interim step before pushing for a referendum.

Hogan added that school systems who try to buck the executive order will find public meetings flooded with parents supportive of his actions.

Pinsky said he expects that if Hogan does go the route of challenging his bill at the ballot box, tourism boards and businesses from Ocean City would likely fund a sound bite campaign that fails to explain the issue.

The governor’s two year old executive order requires school systems around the state to begin school after Labor Day. Those systems are then required to fit in the legally mandated 180 days and 1,800 hours of instruction before ending on June 15.

The order gives some leeway for boards to request waivers if instruction days are lost to inclement weather.

The state’s largest teachers union and the association that represents school boards across the state has opposed the order because of difficulty meeting the required instructional days while accommodating holidays and spring break.

Hogan’s comments came hours before the Senate is scheduled to debate a bill that would allow school boards across the state to decide individually if they wished to start school after Labor Day.

Republicans attempted to stall and kill the bill with a series of unsuccessful amendments, including one that would have gutted the bill and effectively turned it into the legislation the governor vowed to introduce.

The debate over the bill and a preliminary vote are expected on Friday.

Pinsky said local education officials find themselves increasingly handcuffed by the executive order, depending on when Labor Day falls on the calendar from year to year and  because of their desire to offer spring breaks and ethnic and religious holidays based on the makeup of their jurisdictions.

“I think the people at the local level should decide,” said Pinsky. “They understand the trade-offs but for some reason they’re afraid of giving it back to the people in the 24 local jurisdictions. I can’t control what he does. I think it’s ill-conceived. He should let the people decide as they have for 50 years prior to his executive order.”

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