School boards, groups aren't giving up on NC calendar changes despite Senate dismissal

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — It's been 11 years since North Carolina lawmakers told public schools when the school year could open and close.

But local school boards remain unwilling to dismiss their insistence that they and not the state should decide when classes are out for summer in their areas. A new politically diverse coalition of advocates and dozens of lawmakers agree with them.

State law tells nearly all traditional public schools they can't start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

"We believe in local control," said Kathy Hartkopf with North Carolina FreedomWorks, a limited-government group that's working with liberal organizations and established education associations in seeking relief. "We do not believe the calendar (law) represents any kind of local control."

But the coalition's creation and the introduction of more than 40 bills at the legislature this year seeking to either repeal the law, obtain individual exemptions for 75 districts or move back the school start date apparently won't be enough for changes.

The law originally approved in 2004 after pressure from the tourism and real estate rental industries and parents seeking to preserve traditional summer breaks is working fine, according to Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. Before the law, nearly all districts were opening classes by early August.

"We don't want to revisit the issue of preserving the summers for the kids, for the parents so that people can take their vacations and our businesses that depend on summer tourism (to) have an opportunity to flourish," Berger said.

As proof of that disinterest, a bill passed by the House before a parliamentary deadline last week — basically a placeholder from House Republicans designed to spur discussion with senators on school calendars — was quickly moved in the Senate to a committee where bills GOP leaders don't like sit and die. Another nine Senate calendar bills already were in the Ways & Means Committee.

Calendar law opponents haven't changed the crux of their other arguments since 2004. They also say the lack of flexibility harms student performance and makes it harder for students to take advanced classes at community colleges because high school first semesters don't end until January.

"The clear message is one size doesn't fit all," said Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, a former high school assistant principal. "I think filing all those bills says this isn't working."

The flood of bills filed to help school districts likely was caused by a particularly bad winter this year that gave Piedmont districts extremely limited dates for makeup days, said Paige Sayles, a Franklin County school board member and president of the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the Rules Committee chairman, said tweaks to the calendar law over time have made it easier for school to comply.

Since 2013 districts can choose to have either 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction. Both had been required previously. Districts can extend daily instructional time and either schedule fewer days, like Wilkes County schools have done, or increase the number of potential snow makeup days in reserve. The rules already didn't apply to charter or year-round schools.

Changes also have been restrictive, too. Waivers are no longer allowed for individual schools that have specialized curricula, for example.

The coalition called LOCAL, or Let Our Calendar Authority Be Local, opposed the contents in the House bill that passed last week. The bill didn't give any new tools to districts in adjusting their calendars. An amendment that would have repealed the calendar date requirement nearly passed — a reflection of stronger support in the House. The issue is still alive for this year.

"We're hoping it'll at least start the conversation with the Senate," Sayles said.

Louise Lee of Raleigh is founder of Save Our Summers-North Carolina, a parent group that collected signatures and ran radio ads in 2004 seeking the streamlined calendar. She said she's not surprised by the continued efforts of groups to repeal the law.

Lawmakers should stick to the status quo because, Lee said, "what the legislators are not hearing is that parents want changes."

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