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Three Charlotte-area counties will defy NC school calendar law and open early

The Gaston County school board approved an Aug. 17 opening, even though state law requires waiting until Aug. 29 this year.
Ann Doss Helms
The Gaston County school board approved an Aug. 17 opening, even though state law requires waiting until Aug. 29 this year.

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

North Carolina’s calendar law requires most districts to wait until the Monday closest to Aug. 26. This year that’s Aug. 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 it wants when it comes to the school calendar,” board Chair Jeff Ramsey said.

The General Assembly passed the law in 2004, driven by requests from the tourism industry and some teachers and parents. It’s been unpopular with local districts ever since, with the North Carolina School Boards Association and individual district leaders asking for flexibility every time lawmakers convene.

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

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

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

Vice Chair Kevin Collier offered a substitute: A calendar that balanced the days in each semester, with winter break dividing them. The board approved it without discussion, leaving unspoken the fact that it violates state law.

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

The Department of Public Instruction says Allison Schafer, general counsel to the department and State Board of Education, has advised those boards against taking that route.

“(A)ll local school board members and superintendents take an oath of office promising to obey all state and federal laws. They are responsible for complying with the laws as written, regardless of whether they agree with them,” Schafer wrote after a query about the Rutherford vote. “... We encourage our local boards of education and local charter schools to stay within the legal boundaries imposed on them. Failure to do so can place them in legal peril.”

Exemptions and resistance

The law does allow some districts to start early. About a dozen districts in the mountains get a waiver because they lose so many school days to snow closings. There’s also a clause that exempts schools from using modified calendars that were in place in the 2003-2004 school year. Mooresville Graded Schools, about 30 miles north of Charlotte, claims that exemption. Its nine schools go from Aug. 10 to May 24.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools, northeast of Mecklenburg County, has the same calendar as Mooresville. It’s the only district in North Carolina designated as a renewal district under 2018 legislation that gives flexibility on a number of fronts, similar to charter schools.

The calendar law also allows an earlier start for year-round schools. In 2019, about a dozen districts, including Iredell-Statesville, Kannapolis, Lincoln and Anson counties, opened early, claiming their summer school programs made them year-round districts. Legislators responded by clarifying the definition of year-round school, shutting down that loophole.

The pandemic led to a statewide mandatory start date of Aug. 17 in 2020 only, intended to allow time to make up for statewide school closures at the end of the 2019-20 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 calendar decisions.

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

The late start 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 community college classes, they’re out of sync with those schedules. The law allows early and middle college high schools based on college campuses to follow the college calendar. But large numbers of students in regular high schools also take dual-enrollment classes.

Truitt says the push to keep the law in place has very little to do with education: “Our school calendar doesn’t change because there are people who feel very strongly that it will impact the tourism industry 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 endured since Republicans took the majority.

Leanne Winner, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, says powerful members of both parties have supported the uniform calendar mandate, including former Sen. Marc Basnight, a coastal Democrat; former Sen. 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 through the years that have passed the House, either local bills or statewide bills,” Winner said. “And then they’ve just never moved on the Senate side.”

Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, who chairs the House Education Committee, says he favors calendar flexibility but has heard no talk of revisiting the subject in 2023. Berger’s office responded that his position on calendar flexibility has not changed.

Protecting summer vacation

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

Without the law, he said, districts might shift to a year-round schedule with shorter breaks scattered throughout the year. That would limit vacation opportunities for families, he said, as well as crucial revenue in tourism-reliant areas.

“Summer vacation at the beach or in the mountains is just 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 earlier and later and later and later, and somewhere you’ve got to draw the line.”

But Ramsey said it was more important to the Gaston school board to honor community requests for a calendar with a full-length first semester that ends before winter break.

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

Consequences for defiance?

Winner noted that a few statutes related to education spell out a penalty: “The state Board of Education can withhold the superintendent’s salary.”

But the calendar law isn’t one of them. Schafer, the DPI and Board of Education attorney, agrees there’s no penalty specified in the calendar law nor in state board policy. She noted that the school calendar report to the General Assembly “will allow it to decide what, if any, action to take or direct the State Board or the Department of Public Instruction to take with regard to noncompliance.”

“The repercussions for failing to follow the law can go beyond any possible actions by the State Board of Education or Department of Public Instruction,” Schafer added. “For example, impacted individuals or groups can bring lawsuits against a local board to require the board to comply with the law and/or seek damages.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.