This story first appeared in the weekly newsletter of education reporter Ann Doss Helms. Sign up here to receive it directly in your inbox.
In recent months, we have seen a series of votes from Charlotte area school boards to return students to school earlier than the state school calendar allows. Board members have been open about their reasons for bringing students back in early August, such as taking tests before winter break and synchronizing them with community college calendars. But I have yet to see any of them publicly address their decision to simply ignore state law.
Implicitly, the argument goes something like this: It’s a bad law, driven by tourism interests rather than educational merits. School calendars should be a local decision, but we cannot get the General Assembly to return that authority to us. We don’t like the law, and there is no penalty for breaking it. So let’s just ignore it and see what happens.
For the first counties, what happened was nothing. Then a couple of parents sued the Union County school board, and were apparently told by the board’s attorney that they couldn’t win a lawsuit based on that kind of reasoning. In a special meeting early Friday morning, the board voted 6-3 to rescind the early start schedule, replacing it with a law-compliant Aug. 28 opening day.
One member, John Kirkpatrick IV, apologized for agreeing with the unanimous vote to break the law, saying he knew it was wrong to break a law just because he disagreed with it. Most others remained defiant, including those who reluctantly voted to rescind the early start. They complained about the law and the parents who sued, and urged voters to pressure the governor and the General Assembly for change.
Of course, many people have been doing that for years, including the North Carolina Association of School Boards. In these hyperpartisan times, support for allowing districts to set their own calendars is truly bipartisan. Democratic-dominated school boards and Republican-dominated school boards have called for flexibility.
When the Republican-dominated Gaston County board rallied the students on Aug. 17 of this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board President Elyse Dashew, a Democrat, praised their leadership. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, supports local control of calendars. So do the members of the State Board of Elections who were appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The state House has passed calendar flexibility bills with bipartisan support.
But the Senate has stuck to the 2004 law. And when I asked Senate Leader Phil Berger’s office on Friday if he was interested in revising the law in the current session, either to ease the restrictions or improve them, the Senate answer was no.
The session is young, so maybe that will change. I noted that the CMS board, which always asks for calendar flexibility, framed this year’s request as seeking authority for districts to synchronize K-12 calendars with community colleges. Stephanie Sneed, the newly elected chair of the board’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, says it’s designed to emphasize impact on students, rather than local officials’ desire for flexibility.
A growing number of North Carolina high school students are taking community college classes, a move that is in line with the bipartisan desire to see them graduate college and/or career ready.
Meanwhile, attorney Mitch Armbruster, who brought the lawsuit against the Union County board, said it might not be the last. Armbruster works for the Raleigh-based law firm Smith Anderson, which he says represents tourism groups and has a history of suing government agencies.
“I have certainly heard from people in other counties. There has been a lot of interest in the lawsuit,” Armbruster told me on Friday.