Schools impacting Missouri’s summer tourism

Picture it: an unseasonably cool mid-August day at a popular Missouri State Park. The campground is NOT full and the few campers present are from out of state.

For a state with a passion for the outdoors and summertime fun, this seems odd, doesn’t it? Welcome to the new normal in Missouri thanks to many schools starting in early August.

Gussie Schmitz is a mother of two in Union. She has noticed this trend as well.

Enjoying the Black River outside of Lesterville Fall 2016, because we ran out of time to go in the summer. Did an unseasonably warm weekend in October instead.

“Our school has gradually started earlier during the eight years I have had kids in school. It adds up to about one week earlier than when my oldest started kindergarten,” Schmitz shared.

While a one-week shift in eight years may not seem like much, the consequences of an earlier start date has been felt by Schmitz and her family. It has specifically had an impact upon their Missouri State Fair experience.

“When I was a kid, we went to stay with my grandparents the week before school to attend the state fair every day. Great memories! With my children, we have to make the state fair a one-day thing. Anyone who has been to the state fair knows you can’t see it all in one day,” Schmitz added.

“We couldn’t go to all the events we would have liked to because of school starting.”

Schmitz is not alone. Kim Siem and her husband, Bruce, operate Siem Farms in Augusta. The school district they reside in has also pushed back their start date, which conflicts with the state fair.

“As far as the kids with their 4-H and FFA projects, I know of several families that were unable to go and take their projects even though they had been county-level winners because the kids were already back in school,” Siem said.

Michelle Turner

As more and more schools across Missouri are pushing for Project Based Learning and obtaining real-world 21st century skills, Siem feels the Missouri State Fair experience is just as educational as the classroom setting.

“Getting up in front of a panel of judges and giving a demonstration, showing an animal, or presenting a project is a huge boost for their confidence and helps them with their ability to speak with others down the road into adulthood,” Siem explained. “These kind of experiences should be encouraged. It certainly helps build a more well-rounded adult.”

When schools start earlier, it doesn’t just conflict with the Missouri State Fair; it has an impact upon summer tourism in Missouri.

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Meramec Caverns has a rich history and often hits the record books as Missouri’s “most-visited” cave. Meramec Caverns president Lester Turilli said he has felt the side effects of the shift in the school year.

“The schools starting back earlier is having a negative impact on business,” Turilli said. “We used to have from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but schools are getting out later and starting earlier each year, which shortens our season.”

Another area touched by early school start dates is Missouri’s float trip industry. Franklin Floats is located in Lesterville and is one of the oldest canoe outfitters on the Upper Black River.

Owner Bob Franklin has been in business for 40 years and enjoys seeing the grandchildren of some of his first customers return. However, he doesn’t enjoy the change in what many Missouri schools call “summer” these days.

“They say that tourism is king in Missouri, but they keep pushing back the start of school. The little restaurants in Lesterville can’t pay their electric bills during the off-season with people drinking coffee daily. They depend on the tourism season, just like all the other businesses in our community,” Franklin explained.

While there are people who feel that starting school earlier in August has benefits for working parents and individuals who prefer to vacation in late-May or early-June, the economic impact felt in communities like Lesterville is nearly palpable.

“August should be one of our peak months, but the decline starts during the back-to-school tax-free holiday. Then, as soon as schools go back, that’s when the weekday tourism dollars disappear,” Franklin added.

“Those are the dollars that carry us through the rest of the year. Now, you see more and more places pushing fall weekend specials trying to recoup lost tourism dollars, thanks to the legislature in Missouri allowing schools to start too early.”

According to the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE), for schools to start more than ten days prior to the first Monday in September, there are requirements the school district must meet.

“The local school board must first give public notice of a public meeting to discuss the proposal of having an opening of school on a date more than ten days prior to the first Monday in September and the majority of the board votes to allow an earlier opening date. Public notice should specifically state the intent of the district to have an opening date that is more than ten days prior to the first Monday in September.” This information is stated in the Missouri DESE School Calendar Requirements document.

More and more individuals are speaking out against the shift in many school calendars across our state and the impact it is having.

If you are one of those individuals, the big question to ask is this: Is your local school district following the above policy?

Consider contacting school board members to express your concerns. If they are unwilling to examine your school district’s compliance, or lack thereof, consider contacting the Missouri Department of Education or your state representative.

(Michelle Turner lives in Union, Mo.)

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