Travel industry study says August school days cost Kentucky $432 million

View of Lake Cumberland in Pulaski County, looking towards Burnside from the Burnside Island State Park in May of 2014
View of Lake Cumberland in Pulaski County, looking towards Burnside from the Burnside Island State Park in May of 2014 Herald-Leader

Kentucky travel industry officials have released a study that contends the early return to school each year is costing the state millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

The travel industry commissioned the study to support a bill that would prevent school districts from starting classes before late August. Many districts return to school in early August, cutting nearly a month of potentially lucrative business for the state’s travel industry.

Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, has introduced Senate Bill 50, which proposes to set the opening date for schools no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26.

The study showed that the drop in tourism from July to August in 2014 cost the state more than $432 million in lost business.

The study — carried out for the Kentucky Marina Association and Kentucky Travel Industry Association by Certec, a Versailles research firm — showed that nearly 6,000 tourism jobs ended in August and that more than $45 million in local and state tax revenue was lost due to the decline in tourism business. The associations attribute the major drop in tourism in August to the early opening of Kentucky’s public schools, a news release said.

“Kentucky tourism drops immediately and sharply upon the opening of schools. What is a peak in July becomes a cliff in August. This study documents what we already know about that cliff. In doing so it also demonstrates how valuable tourism is to this state,” said Kentucky Travel Industry Association president and CEO Hank Phillips.

In a letter to members, Phillips said research in other states has determined there is no correlation between later school start dates and student performance. He said that while local decision making about schools is usually preferable, there are times when legislative action is needed.

Senate Education Committee chairman Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said he expected that committee would hear the bill Thursday.

Kentucky is in a budget crisis, Girdler said. “Statewide problems call for statewide solutions.”

But some groups are opposed to the legislation.

“We oppose Senate Bill 50 because it takes away from school districts the flexibility to set their own dates for starting school,” said Kentucky Education Association spokesman Charles Main.

“We believe that local communities through their board members, parents and teachers should continue to make decisions about the school calendar that reflect the will of their community, as they have always done,” said Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. “Any community that wants to start school in late August can certainly do so now. I have never had a school leader in Kentucky suggest to me that the legislature should mandate when any school district can start its year for students.”

But Phillips said: “We know that many parents and teachers have concerns about how early schools start. SB 50 offers them a remedy for those concerns as well as providing important benefits for Kentucky’s economy.”

The bill would allow school districts to request waivers based on their history of closing due to winter weather, and it would exempt districts with year-round calendars, according to Girdler.

J.D. Hamilton, Kentucky Marina Association president and owner of Lee’s Ford Marina at Lake Cumberland, said: “Visit one of our marinas just before schools open and just after. The decline in business is dramatic, and this study puts numbers to what we see every year in August.”

Girdler said starting school later saves cooling costs for schools, as much as $260,000 for one district, according to one study.

He said states such as Michigan and Washington start school after Labor Day without hurting student achievement.

And he said it’s possible to start school the week before Labor Day, take the standard minimum number of days off, meet Kentucky’s minimum required days of school and end the school year by Memorial Day.

In a passionate Senate floor speech Feb. 9, Girdler said that with the legislation, “Kentucky can improve education, increase tourism, enhance our economic development efforts, create jobs, increase state and local government revenue, save our local school districts money, potentially increase teachers’ salaries, improve child safety, help our small family farms ... . All the above can be done without costing the Kentucky taxpayer a single penny.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears