Three counties in the Charlotte area will defy North Carolina’s school calendar law and open early

Over the next week, students are returning to classrooms in public schools in South Carolina, private and charter schools in North Carolina, and a handful of districts in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s calendar law requires most districts to wait until the Monday closest to August 26. This year it is August 29.

But a few counties have exemptions, and three counties just west of Charlotte have decided not to follow the law. The Gaston County School Board voted unanimously to open Aug. 17.

“Our 2022-2023 calendar reflects what our community has told us they want when it comes to the school calendar,” said council chairman Jeff Ramsey.

The General Assembly adopted the law in 2004, at the request of the tourism industry and some teachers and parents. Since then, he’s been unpopular with local districts, the North Carolina School Boards Association and individual district leaders asking for flexibility whenever lawmakers meet.

One of the biggest complaints is that the late start forces high school students taking semester-long courses to take finals after the winter break.

When Gaston County Schools asked families about three options for this year’s school schedule, 70% wanted one where the first semester ended before winter break, communications chief Todd Hagans told the school board. in March.

But he said there was a problem: the two semesters were unbalanced, “with only 77 days in the fall semester compared to 97 days in the spring semester”.

Vice President Kevin Collier proposed a replacement: A calendar which balanced the days of each semester, with the winter holidays dividing them. The board rubber-stamped it, glossing over whether it violates state law.

A calendar countdown provided to the General Assembly in June indicates that the two districts west of Gaston – Cleveland and Rutherford counties – did the same.

The Department of Public Instruction said Allison Schafer, general counsel for the department and the State Board of Education, advised those boards against going that route.

“(All) all local school board members and superintendents take an oath promising to obey all state and federal laws. They are responsible for complying with the laws as they are written, whether or not they agree with them,” Schafer wrote after a question about Rutherford’s vote. “…We encourage our local school boards and local charter schools to stay within the legal limits imposed on them. Failure to do so may put them in legal danger.

Exemptions and Resistance

The law allows some districts to start early. A dozen districts in the mountains are getting a waiver because they are losing so many school days to snow closures. There is also a clause that exempts schools from using the modified calendars that were in place during the 2003-2004 school year. Mooresville Graded Schools, about 30 miles north of Charlotte, is claiming this exemption. Its nine schools run from August 10 to May 24.

Rowan-Salisbury schools in northeast Mecklenburg County have the same schedule as Mooresville. It is the only district in North Carolina designated as a renewal district under Legislation 2018 which gives flexibility on a number of fronts, similar to charter schools.

The calendar law also allows for an earlier start for schools that are open all year round. In 2019, about ten districts, including Iredell-Statesville, Kannapolis, Lincoln and Anson counties, open early, saying their summer school programs make them year-round districts. Lawmakers responded by clarifying the definition of year-round school, closing that loophole.

The pandemic has led to a mandatory statewide start date of August 17 in 2020 only, intended to allow time to catch up with statewide school closings at the end of the year. 2019-2020 school year..

Opposition but no change

In a recent Charlotte Talks interview, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said she sides with superintendents and school boards who want to make their own scheduling decisions.

“I 100% believe that every district should have schedule flexibility,” she said. “Districts want schedule flexibility so they can meet the needs of their students.”

Late entry affects high school students the most. Not only do they end up taking first semester exams after winter break, but with an increasing number of students taking classes at community colleges, they are out of sync with those schedules. The law allows elementary and secondary high schools based on university campuses to follow the university calendar. But a large number of ordinary high school students also take dual-enrolment courses.

Truitt says the push to keep the law in place has very little to do with education: “Our school calendar isn’t changing because there are people who believe very strongly that it will impact the music industry. tourism if we were to allow districts to have their own school calendar.

The calendar law was passed when Democrats controlled the General Assembly, and it has been around since Republicans took over.

Leanne Winner, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, said powerful members of both parties have backed the uniform calendar term, including former Sen. Marc Basnight, a coastal Democrat; former Senator Tom Apodaca, a Republican who represented Mountain Counties; and current Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican.

“There have been a number of bills over the years that have passed the House, either local bills or statewide bills,” Winner said. “And then they just never moved to the Senate side.”

Gaston County Rep. John Torbett, who chairs the House Education Committee, says he favors scheduling flexibility, but hasn’t heard of revisiting the topic in 2023. The Berger’s office responded that its position on schedule flexibility had not changed.

Protect summer vacation

Vince Chalena, executive director of the Charlotte-based company Travel Industry Association of North Carolina, describes the school calendar law as a tool to protect summer holidays, as well as people whose livelihoods depend on summer trips to beaches, mountains and other attractions. Those people include students and teachers who depend on travel and tourism for summer jobs, he said.

Without the law, he said, districts could move to a year-round schedule with shorter breaks scattered throughout the year. This would limit vacation opportunities for families, he said, as well as crucial income in areas dependent on tourism.

“Summer vacations at the beach or in the mountains are part of our North Carolina culture,” he said.

Even allowing counties to start one, two or three weeks earlier is problematic, he said: “You can imagine the creep that will happen on that. It will move earlier and earlier and later and later and later, and somewhere you have to draw the line.

But Ramsey said it was more important for the Gaston School Board to honor community requests for a schedule with a full first semester that ends before winter break.

“While we realize that tourism is economically important, we also realize that it is important for us to make a decision that responds to our local community,” he said in an email.

Consequences for defiance?

Winner noted that a few education-related statutes set out a penalty: “The state Board of Education may withhold the superintendent’s salary.

But the law of the calendar is not one of them. Schafer, the attorney for the DPI and the Board of Education, agrees that no penalty is specified in the calendar law or in state board policy. She noted that the report of the school calendar to the General Assembly “will allow it to decide, if necessary, on the measures to be taken or to order the Council of State or the Department of Public Instruction to take in the event of noncompliance”.

“The repercussions of failing to comply with the law can go beyond any possible action by the State Board of Education or the Department of Public Instruction,” Schafer added. “For example, affected individuals or groups can take legal action against a local council to compel the council to comply with the law and/or seek damages.”

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