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Superintendent says CMS board plans to defy NC school calendar law next year

cms buses.jpg
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
When Gaston County opened schools Aug. 17, state Rep. John Torbett posted encouragement on Facebook and CMS board Chair Elyse Dashew commended the school board's leadership.

Students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools start classes today, along with most other North Carolina districts, because that’s what state law requires. But Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh says next year the school board plans to follow Gaston County’s lead and start earlier.

In 2004, North Carolina's General Assembly set a mandatory late August start date to ensure the tourism industry would have a uniform schedule for family travel and summer labor. That calendar forces high school students to take first-semester final exams after winter break. Districts have been grousing about that and lobbying for calendar flexibility for years.

This year school boards in Gaston, Cleveland and Rutherford counties voted to start Aug. 17, regardless of the law, with winter break falling between the two semesters. At Friday’s back-to-school briefing, Hattabaugh said the CMS board plans to follow suit.

"The board will be giving direction to me, and I believe it’s their intent that we will be moving ahead aligning our calendar with Central Piedmont Community College, because we do have their middle colleges," he said, referring to high schools based on college campuses that offer free college classes.

Central Piedmont’s fall classes will start on Aug. 14 next year. The calendar law requires most school districts to wait until the Monday closest to Aug. 26, which will be Aug. 28.

Starting two weeks earlier would mean the first semester could end at winter break. Hattabaugh says it would also mean a shorter summer stretch to prepare for next year’s opening.

"But that’s what’s best for students," he said. "We’re talking about EOCs, EOGs, and kids coming back and having to spend a week in review. So I think it’s the right move."

The law has numerous critics in both parties. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, says she supports calendar flexibility for all districts. So does Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee.

On Aug. 17, when Gaston County Schools brought students back, Torbett posted a message on Facebook urging the district to "have a great First Day of School with many, many great days to follow." CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew commented that the Gaston board gave students "a calendar geared for the best student outcomes. That's leadership."

But so far the state Senate has never agreed to relax or revoke the law. This summer Senate leader Phil Berger's office told WFAE his position hasn't changed.

The General Assembly could take up the school calendar law in 2023 — either to grant the flexibility that districts have long requested, or to spell out penalties for violating the law. This year, the districts that started early have not been penalized.

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.