May 20, 2018
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No decision on SAD 29 potato harvest

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — Hamstrung by a bill being considered by lawmakers to lengthen the school year, the SAD 29 school board on Monday evening put off an attempt to solidify the school calendar for next year, thus delaying a decision on whether to continue the traditional harvest recess.

SAD 29 consists of the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello.

The decision came after brief discussion during the nearly three-hour meeting. The board likely will not discuss the matter further until the Legislature decides what to do about LD 18, a bill before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that would extend the school year from 180 days to 185 days a year. The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Peter Edgecomb of Caribou, who is also a member of the Education Committee.

The bill would require at least 177 school days to be used for instruction, up from 175, and increases the allowed number of teacher in-service and related administrative days from five to eight.

A separate bill also to be reviewed by the Education Committee would mandate that the school year not begin before Sept. 1.

The rule would apply beginning in the 2012-13 academic year and would apply to elementary schools, secondary schools, the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System.

The issue of whether to eliminate or modify the traditional harvest break in SAD 29 came up in February. The issue has arisen in the district a number of times over the past two decades, as the invention of the potato harvester and other equipment has severely diminished the number of students who work during the recess.

The district observes one week of harvest recess. Older students who intend to work the harvest can stay out longer to do so, and the school helps them complete the missed schoolwork. The school communicates with growers to ensure that students are working.

Officials in SAD 29 have no official data showing how many students participated in last year’s harvest, but estimated that 35 percent of its 1,300 students performed harvest-related work.

During last month’s school board meeting, several local farmers attended the meeting and urged the board to continue the break. Some even suggested that it be longer.

Some parents and teachers, however, have said several times over the years that they no longer believe a harvest recess is warranted. Working parents have said they have a difficult time finding child care over the break if their children are not taking part in the harvest, and teachers have said the break can be detrimental to learning. Younger students sometimes forget what they learned in the month before the break, forcing teachers to spend time going over the same material.

In 2006, SAD 29 conducted a harvest survey that was targeted toward parents and teachers. The results showed that 194 of the parents were in favor of continuing the break, and 467 were not in favor. As for district staff, 97 respondents wanted to continue the recess, while 59 did not.

During Monday night’s meeting, several potato growers were on hand to give their thoughts on the harvest break, but they did not speak on the issue after the board began talking about the proposed legislation.

During a hearing on the bill last month, owners of Maine hotels, motels, restaurants and summer recreational businesses supported the proposal that the school year not begin before Sept. 1.

Supporters told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday that the law would ensure they have a supply of young workers while their prime season is still busy. Opponents of the bill said it would cost schools more money.

Raymond Freve of Plymouth, the interim superintendent in SAD 29, said Monday evening that he had talked to Edgecomb about the bill and initially did not support it because the first draft called for all the extra days to be used as professional development days for teachers. The bill has now been amended, which Freve thought was a positive sign.

The board received documentation about the bill but decided not to take any action on the calendar until it moves further through the Legislature.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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