PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — For the next three years at least, area high school students will have three weeks off in the fall to work at local farms, or do other things.

The board of directors for School Administrative District 1 voted 9-7 on Feb. 10 to keep Presque Isle High School’s three week potato harvest break and revisit the question of changing or ending it in three years. Last fall, SAD 1 administrators suggested that the board should consider the issue, and a public hearing was held earlier this winter for farmers, parents and taxpayers of the district, which serves Mapleton, Chapman, Castle Hill, Presque Isle and Westfield.

At the public hearing and board meetings, some parents and school board members expressed concerns about continuing the three-week break when less than 15 percent of district high school students worked at a potato farm last fall. Farmers and agriculture advocates argued that the break has helped sustain potato farmers with short-term help every fall, as an alternative to hiring migrant farm workers, and it also has given youths a chance to earn good money.

“The Maine potato industry has appreciated the relationship that its growers have had with area school districts,” said Tim Hobbs, the Maine Potato Board’s director of development and grower relations.

No one spoke against the harvest break just before the board members voted on Feb. 10, but five supporters, including Hobbs, took the opportunity to again share their opinions.

Hobbs said that Maine’s potato industry is valued at about $500 million and employs about 6,000 people, mostly in Aroostook County. The three-week break has worked well for farmers, he said, because a one- or two-week break can be thrown off by weather. In the future, if the school board does want to shorten or end the break, Hobbs suggested that they consider phasing it out over several years so farmers could transition.

In SAD 1, only high school students break for harvest. A few other districts in The County still take harvest breaks, some for all students and some for certain grades. The lengths of the breaks can vary as well. Fort Fairfield, for instance, has two weeks off during harvest for middle and high school students.

Dayna McCrum, state president of the Future Farmers of America and a student at Central Aroostook High School in Mars Hill, whose whole district takes a three-week break, told SAD 1 board members during the Feb. 10 meeting that school districts could work together to help more students get involved in harvest jobs.

“The benefits to our harvest taxpayers and harvest-working students far outweigh the argument to remove the harvest recess,” she said.

Scott Young, a former teacher and sports coach and a farmer in Mapleton, questioned one reason that was offered for reconsidering or changing the break — the potential to save about $50,000 on busing costs. Young pointed out that the amount represents about a quarter of 1 percent of the district’s annual budget.

“I’m confident that if the need truly exists to save about a quarter of 1 percent of the annual budget, it could be found just about anywhere,” he said.

Hobbs responded to the concerns aired by some parents that learning may be interrupted by the three-week September-October break.

Most studies done on “time breaks” and academic performance were focused on eight- to 12-week vacations, he said. While they found some evidence of lower-income students falling behind, there aren’t any studies examining short three-week breaks, he said.

“If the MSAD 1 school board is concerned about the academic impact that an extended break has on students,” he said, “maybe you would be better off looking at a longer student day or a longer calendar year.”

Among the school board members who voted in favor of keeping the harvest for another three years, Carol Bell said she thinks that the break has been a benefit to farmers as well as students, including some she has hired as employees at the Aroostook County Action Program, where she is a program director.

“The work experience is valuable. It teaches some kids who have only worked a three-hour day or a four-hour day what a real work day is. It also teaches some of them if they want to go into farming,” Bell said. “They learn a lot.”