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Snowy winter could heat up N.C. school calendar debate

Could this year’s snowy winter lead to earlier August openings in coming years?

Widespread frustration over unpopular makeup days could revive the quest to relax state mandates on when summer vacation can start and end, some state legislators and local officials say.

“I think it’s going to get some more traction coming up because so many people are impacted by this storm,” said state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat who supports giving local school boards more freedom to control the school calendar.

Some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders say they’d like to start school earlier in August, which would let students take first-semester exams before winter break. That would also give more second-semester flexibility to deal with snow makeup days, they say.

“We’re not asking for a lot,” said Jonathan Sink, a CMS lawyer who acts as liaison to the General Assembly.

At issue is a 10-year-old calendar law that forces most N.C. public schools to open in late August and dismiss by early June. It was pushed by the tourism industry and promoted by families wearing “Save Our Summer” shirts. Both groups said early-August openings were eroding vacation and family time.

Support for the calendar law is bipartisan – as is opposition. It passed in 2004, when Democrats dominated the legislature. Since Republicans took control, efforts to lift the restrictions have failed.

CMS and other local districts have been complaining since the bill passed. The first version said schools couldn’t open before Aug. 25 or dismiss after June 9. In 2006, CMS and many other districts opened on Friday, Aug. 25, with officials saying there was so little wiggle room in the state requirements that it wasn’t practical to lose even one day to wait for a Monday opening.

In recent years the state has loosened that, requiring that schools have a “start date no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and end date no later than the Friday closest to June 11.” But CMS officials say it’s still difficult to set a calendar that best serves local students and families. And with most N.C. schools closing five days or more for snow, CMS and other nearby districts are looking at spring break or Saturday makeups.

State Rep. Charles Jeter, a first-term Republican from Huntersville, said he has found the resistance to local flexibility baffling. He was among four Mecklenburg legislators – two Republicans and two Democrats – who introduced a bill last summer to exempt CMS from the calendar restrictions. It stalled in committee.

“We saw all these flexibility bills filed. They all went nowhere,” Jeter said this week. “Why? I honestly don’t know the answer.”

The Observer tried to reach all members of the local delegation to ask about calendar flexibility. Sens. Malcolm Graham and Joel Ford and Reps. Rodney Moore and Becky Carney, all Democrats, joined Cotham and Jeter in saying they favor local flexibility.

But some veteran lawmakers say major changes in the calendar law are unlikely, especially in a “short session” where time is limited and issues such as teacher raises and tenure are likely to demand higher priority.

“I don’t think there’s an appetite for changing the start and finish dates,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican.

“I think there needs to be some kind of uniformity,” said Rep. Beverly Earle, a Democrat.

Tim Morgan, vice chair of the CMS board and a board member of the N.C. School Boards Association, said major changes are a long shot this year. But he said local boards will keep trying.

“We will be raising the issue,” he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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