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Defiance of North Carolina's school calendar law is growing

Members of the Gaston County school board Monday raised their hands to approve a calendar without saying which option they were voting on.
Gaston County Board of Education YouTube
Members of the Gaston County school board Monday raised their hands to approve a calendar without saying which option they were voting on.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

As the current school year winds down, the North Carolina Board of Education got its annual report on school calendars for the coming year. It shows that 15 districts in a dozen counties, with a total of almost 177,000 students, have decided to ignore the state law that requires them to start classes “no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26.”

That law has frustrated school boards, educators and families across the state for years. It passed in 2004, driven by the tourism industry’s desire for a uniform summer vacation season. The law forces many districts to give high school midyear exams after winter break and makes it hard to synchronize with community colleges, which increasingly partner with public high schools to offer free college-level courses.

A dozen small districts have been exempted from the law, including Mooresville and Rowan-Salisbury. Others have tried to find ways to work around it, and in 2022 three Charlotte-area districts decided to just defy the law and see what happened.

The answer: Nothing, because the law includes no penalties.

When state Board of Education Vice Chair Alan Duncan introduced the 2023 report last week, he pointed out that there’s little the board can do about violations: “The only authority we would have…would be to send a letter reminding them of what the law states.”

The Charlotte region remains at the forefront of the calendar rebellion: Cabarrus County, Gaston County, Iredell-Statesville, Lincoln County, Cleveland County, Stanly County, Rutherford County and Kannapolis are all starting classes between Aug. 9 and 16 (Aug. 28 is the earliest start date allowed under the law this year). The Union County school board tried to join them but backed down in the face of a lawsuit the board clearly couldn’t win.

As usual, this legislative session brought a flurry of bills that would grant calendar flexibility, and as usual, none has passed. Republican leaders in the state House and state Superintendent Catherine Truitt are in favor of flexibility, but the Senate has held off any efforts to change the calendar law.

Some Senate Republicans sponsored a bill that would allow the state superintendent or any resident of a school district that defies the law to sue for a judgment forcing the district to comply. It set a minimum of $10,000 plus attorneys' fees as the award for a successful suit. That bill didn’t make it to the House in time to stay alive for the 2023 session. But that doesn’t mean a similar proposal couldn’t pop up elsewhere. I emailed Senate Leader Phil Berger’s office asking for an update but have not gotten a response.

I checked in last week with Mitch Armbruster, the Raleigh attorney who represented the Union County plaintiffs (and whose firm works with tourism groups), about litigation against any other Charlotte-area districts. He said he’s still hearing “a lot of interest, but no one that has decided to pull the trigger on a lawsuit.”

“It’s just unique to have public officials who swear an oath to follow the law to just decide not to follow the law,” Armbruster said.

When I told Charles Jeter, an adviser to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, about the latest tally of calendar scofflaws, he also marveled at the scope of open defiance. “If the General Assembly’s position is, ‘We’re fine with that,’ then change the law,” he said.

New CMS superintendent shakes up her cabinet

 CMS administrators
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Angela Wood, Kelly Kluttz, Ingrid Medlock, Kecia Coln and Melissa Balknight.

Crystal Hill wasted no time getting her own cabinet in place after being awarded a four-year superintendent contract on May 19. The CMS board approved several more four-year contracts at a special meeting last week:

  • Melissa Balknight will be deputy superintendent beginning Aug. 3, making $225,226 a year. She’s currently associate superintendent for academic services in Gaston County Schools and has held several other administrative positions there.
  • Kelly Kluttz, a CPA who is currently chief financial officer for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, becomes chief financial officer for CMS beginning July 10, also at $225,226 a year.
  • Ingrid Medlock, who’s currently the chief HR officer in Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools, becomes chief of staff beginning July 10, at $203,613 a year. Medlock has also been an administrator at Mooresville Graded Schools.
  • Kecia Coln, who’s executive director of human resources for Gaston County Schools, becomes chief HR officer for CMS beginning July 12, making $203,613 a year.
  • Angela Wood, who’s running human resources for Stanly County Schools, becomes the CMS associate superintendent for HR starting July 10, at $197,911 a year.

As you might imagine, that involves displacing some top administrators. The biggest surprise to me was seeing a new chief financial officer. Sheila Shirley has been handling the district’s finances since I started the beat in 2002, always cheerful and maintaining a reputation for squeaky-clean budgeting. In April, the board, with Hill as interim superintendent, extended Shirley’s contract as chief financial officer through June 30, 2024, at a $225,226 annual salary. That contract allows the superintendent to modify her title and duties, and Shirley will become executive director of grants development when Kluttz starts work.
Christine Pejot, who has been HR chief since 2019, was awarded a $202,800 contract in April as an associate superintendent through June 30, 2024. She’s been a rare HR official who’s comfortable talking to reporters and speaks in plain English. Her current assignment is unclear, as CMS Communications Director Susan Vernon-Devlin has declined to provide specifics about the status of several people I’ve asked about. She replied that they “have been reassigned to critical areas that meet the needs of the district to continue its trajectory to excellence.” North Carolina law requires providing more specific answers, and I’m working on that.

Laura Francisco, who had been the associate superintendent for HR, got a similar contract at $197,911 a year. She became assistant superintendent of operations and staffing, starting last week.

The chief of staff job was vacated by Hill when the board tapped her as interim superintendent in January. There was no single deputy superintendent recently, although Matt Hayes was deputy superintendent for academics until Hill became interim superintendent. She assigned him to work in operations, and he’s retiring on June 30 after 26 years with the district. Frank Barnes, the district’s chief accountability officer, is also leaving CMS as of June 30.

That’s a lot of change, and it’s bound to bring some drama and anxiety for staff. But this is part of the drill when a new superintendent arrives.

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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.