cave

A tour is led through the Natural Bridge Caverns during National Caves and Karst Day on Wednesday, June 6, 2018.

Schools across Texas have been starting earlier each year, and these earlier start dates could be costing New Braunfels businesses millions. 

A 2015 bill passed by the  Texas Legislature allowed districts to move up their start dates if they become “Districts of Innovation” — circumventing the mandatory starting date — the fourth Monday of August, said Brad Wuest, CEO of Natural Bridge Caverns. 

“It’s been Texas law for a while now that schools can’t start prior to the fourth Monday in August, and that has been very beneficial for the economy — in particular for the tourism industry, which is one of our largest industries in the state of Texas,” Wuest said.

The year after HB 1842 passed, only about 15 percent of the school kids in Texas were affected by this legislation, and started prior to the fourth Monday, Wuest said.

“Last August, over 75 percent of Texas school kids started prior to the fourth Monday in August,” Wuest said. “(That’s) almost 4 million kids, and so this year we’re anticipating that will be greater than 80 percent.”

Changing these dates to earlier isn’t benefiting the schools either, Wuest said. None of the districts that have implemented this change are seeing more positive test scores, he said. 

“Comal ISD has excellent test scores, and they’re a high achieving district, and they’re able to do it with a more condensed calendar,” Wuest said. “And they go back on the fourth Tuesday in August.”

Natural Bridge Caverns, after this August, will have lost more than $1 million in revenue because of earlier school start dates, Wuest said. 

“Economists estimate for every week school starts sooner, it causes $1 billion in damages to the economy,” Wuest said. “It’s a big deal, and for us it creates a challenge from a revenue perspective but it also creates a challenge from a staffing perspective.”

Tourism-related businesses hire a lot of high school kids, Wuest said. Since those kids’ schedules align with tourism season’s peaks, it worked out well. 

“Well now, you’ve got these staggering different start school dates ... that really hit us in 2017, when the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City school district chose to go DOI,” Wuest said.

There’s no question a shorter summer means a tougher time staffing tourism-related businesses and limits tourism, said Terri Adams, COO of Schlitterbahn, but it also means it’s tough to plan for the future.

“Imagine if one year your employer closed down for four weeks out of the year and the next year it was six or eight weeks?” Adams said. “And if that was completely unpredictable, how would you manage your budget and plans for your future?” 

These districts will randomly select historically low attendance days as days off because that allows those districts’ average daily attendance figure to be higher, which means they receive more income from the state.

“The districts are paid based on average daily attendance, and so I think that’s one reason they do it that way,” Wuest said. “(But) in a lot of cases the parents are working that day — they don’t have that day off — and so what we’re hearing from a lot of parents that are not happy with this change.”

Local business owners are hoping the problem will be fixed in the ongoing legislative session with House Bill 233 and/or Senate Bill 673.

Wuest and Comal ISD Superintendant Andrew Kim testified last week at a HB 233 hearing, pushing for a uniform state start date. 

The bill, filed by Rep. Matt Krause, would set the mandatory start date for Texas school districts to the Tuesday following Labor Day — exempting only schools that meet certain very specific requirements.

“I thought the response was good, it was favorable,” Wuest said of the hearing. “So I feel like this session, there’s a real opportunity to make some progress on this issue and come to a reasonable compromise.”

Wuest said having these kids keep their longer summer isn’t also just good for the economy, but for the kids — who are learning important business and social skills.

“I think we can find something that benefits school children and the economy at the same time, it’s not one or the other,” Wuest said. “The tourism industry generates a lot of the revenue that goes towards school finance, and so I really want to see people come together and find a common ground.”

An initiative called A+ Texas has been started in favor of the late August start date, Wuest said. 

“It’s a coalition of businesses and people in the tourism industry but it’s also a lot of parents that want a more traditional school calendar,” he said.

Picking up the phone and calling a representative or senator is something everyone can do to help with this issue, Wuest said.

“If no one can show any educational benefit to starting school earlier, why should we be damaging the economy so much — it’s not a reasonable compromise there,” Wuest said. “It has such an impact, it makes a big difference for our elected officials to hear from people.”

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