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Early? August start norm
Academics drive schedules
Back to school 4060
Lambert High students like sisters Haley and Heather Overend began school Aug. 9, which is not that early for Forsyth County. - photo by Jennifer Sami
August may seem too early, but that’s when Forsyth County has been going back to school for more than 40 years.

Former Superintendent Paula Gault, who was a local student in the 1950s, recalled how the school year “started a little bit later in August, but I think we usually started before Labor Day.”

For at least the past 20 years, Gault said, school has started in early August due to a demand for fall semester high school finals to be held before winter break.

“As an administrator and teacher, it didn’t really matter to me, but I do know that the board listened to parents,” she said.

But not all parents are on board with the start date.

In a recent Forsyth County News online poll, more than 54 percent of respondents said this year’s Aug. 9 start was too soon. Nearly 13 percent said it was “way too hot” and only about 9.5 percent said it was “about time” to go back.

Carol Walker, a Forsyth mother of three, said it “seems to start earlier every year.”

“I just think it’s way too early,” Walker said. “I mean, they could just go an extra week in June. I know a lot of parents feel the same way I do.”

In 2001, Forsyth schools started the second full week in August mainly in order to allow enough time to prepare for state testing. That’s about when the school year has started ever since.

Jennifer Caracciolo, school system spokeswoman, said there’s even less wiggle room now, since parents started asking for a full week off at Thanksgiving.

“The parent and staff feedback we received ranked ending the first semester before winter break and having a full week off at Thanksgiving as their No. 1 priorities,” Caracciolo said.

“When you count backwards from the last day before winter break and subtract a week at Thanksgiving, we only have three days off. When you split a 178-day student calendar into two semesters, these factors determine your start date.”

Every year, the school board goes back to parents to tweak future calendars. While some may suggest beginning after Labor Day, the majority prefers the academic perks that come with an earlier start.

If the school year began later, testing would have to be conducted after students returned from their two-week winter break.

“It’s been proven that it’s best to test them on the information that they’ve learned prior to winter break,” Caracciolo said.

Just once in the last couple decades has school started in September. That was in 1993, she said, and only to allow enough time for school construction to meet the growing student population.

Walker, whose children are ages 18, 14 and 4, questioned whether starting later would make a difference in the district’s budget.

“They’re doing budget cuts and making teachers take furlough days,” she said. “The air conditioning for the kids — they have to stay cool — and I would think that would cost them more money than just letting them start just a little bit later.”

The start date does impact the cost of cooling, but that’s entirely based on weather each year. It could actually cost more to teach later into June than in August.

The school system purchases electricity from both Sawnee EMC and Georgia Power.

While the rate structures may differ, the end result is the same — the hotter it is outside, and the more people using air conditioning, the more it costs to cool schools.

“There is some truth to the fact that you might save some money by not going to school in August or July or June or September, for that matter,” said Blake House, Sawnee EMC spokesman.

“But you would have to know when the peak power demand times were going to occur. Basically, you would have to be able to predict the weather.”

For a peak month, the difference in cost would be less than 5 percent, House said.

In terms of the system’s $258.8 million budget, that’s less than .1 percent. And last year if school days had carried over into June, it would have cost more. That’s because in 2009 energy use peaked that month.  

Bill McKnight, school system maintenance coordinator, understands.

“Historically, the highest rates are in July and August because they are typically the two hottest months of the year,” he said. “If you avoid purchasing power in July and August, regardless of rate structure, you will save money.”

But McKnight also said the small savings in utility payments don’t equal giving students a more learning conducive schedule.

“There are a lot of other things that come into play such as testing and schedules that parents have to deal with for their children,” he said. “My part of the budget is a tiny, tiny, tiny, minute part of that.”

Forsyth is not the only school system that started Aug. 9. Gainesville City Schools and the Hall, Fayette and DeKalb county systems also began their school year Aug. 9. Cobb County began Aug. 5, and Cherokee County students returned Aug. 2.

Neighboring Fulton County schools, however, don’t go back until Aug. 23. However, the school year ends two days later and students don’t get a full week off during Thanksgiving. Their winter break is also two days shorter, among other differences.

The local board of education sets the final calendar each year.

While factors such as utility costs are considered, school board chairwoman Ann Crow said it really comes down to test schedules and the students.

“We looked at starting it earlier. We even looked it last year ... because people wanted to have more days off during this fall period at Thanksgiving,” Crow said.

“We involve the parents in the decision, especially through the local school councils, and base the decision on what is best academically for the students. We do the best we can.”