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Sponsors turn in 16,500 signatures for ND ballot measure on later school start

BISMARCK – Supporters of changing North Dakota law to force school districts to start classes after Labor Day said they delivered about 16,500 signatures to the secretary of state’s office Wednesday with hopes of putting the question to voters in November.

The measure needs 13,452 valid signatures to get on the Nov. 4 ballot, which could have eight measures – the most in almost 20 years.

Kelly Heinert of Mandan, co-chair of the sponsoring committee, said based on the support received during the signature gathering process, “I feel very confident come November it will pass.”

If voters approve the measure, North Dakota would join Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia as one of a handful of states that require a post-Labor Day start, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Most schools in North Dakota start classes before Labor Day, with the most common starting date this year being Aug. 25, said Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel. A few schools are starting in September, including Bismarck, which starts Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day.

“So there’s a precedent set,” Heinert said.

The measure is one of three now under review by Secretary of State Al Jaeger. Another five are set for the ballot.

If all eight wind up in voters’ hands come November, it would be the most ballot measures since the June 1996 election, which had nine.

“We’ve had these kind of numbers before,” Jaeger said Wednesday, but “we haven’t had it recently.”

The elections of November 1980, December 1989, and November 1990 each had eight measures, Jaeger said.

Four measures submitted by the state Legislature would, if passed, amend the North Dakota Constitution to reflect the right to life “at every stage of development,” prohibit mortgage taxes, create a three-member commission to govern higher education and forbid ballot measures that allocate funds to specific purposes. An equal number of citizen initiatives may join the ballot.

The high number of ballot measures may mean higher voter turnout, said Stephen Nicholson, an associate professor who studies ballot measures at the University of California, Merced.

North Dakota is a low user of initiatives and other forms of direct democracy compared to states like California, Oregon and Washington, Nicholson said.

He added that ballot initiatives are not necessarily a sign of frustration with government.

“There’s really very little relationship between the willingness to sign a ballot … and satisfaction or dissatisfaction,” Nicholson said.

Supporters of the school measure believe students should be able to enjoy the outdoors and have more of a summer when the weather is nice in late August, Heinert said.

“It’s just a quality of life issue,” he said.

Co-chair Linda Striebel of Bismarck said they’ve also heard concerns from teachers, especially in rural areas, about the effects of an earlier school start and hot conditions for students in schools with no air conditioning.

“These kids are not learning at the end of August,” she said.

A DPI official has said the department believes districts should be allowed to set their own school calendars. Heinert said districts would still have control of their calendars, only with a later start date. He said a lot of Minnesota districts squeeze in their school year between Labor Day and Memorial Day, though he acknowledged that isn’t possible some years when Labor Day lands later in September.

Heinert said the sponsors are “just a group of parents” and aren’t planning to buy campaign ads to promote the measure, but they will support any outside groups if they decide to do so.

Jaeger has 35 days to determine if the signatures are sufficient to place the measure on the ballot.

Forum reporter Adrian Glass-Moore contributed to this report