Some NC schools start in early August. Are they violating state law?

Charlotte Observer file photo

The State Board of Education has softened a report that originally accused 13 North Carolina school districts of violating the state’s school calendar law, which requires them to start classes in late August.

Some school districts are counting optional summer school programs to say that they’re operating year-round schools that are exempt from the calendar law. The state board told N.C. Department of Public Instruction staff to rewrite the report, which originally said they disagreed that those districts have authority to start school in early-to-mid-August.

The revised version of the report that was adopted Thursday includes new wording explaining why the districts feel that starting school earlier in August will help students. The report was ordered by state lawmakers, who have not acted on requests from schools to give them calendar flexibility.

“They have engaged in having school start dates that are early, but they believe they fall within a year-round school definition,” state board vice chairman Alan Duncan said Wednesday in calling for changes to the report. “That’s subject to a lot of debate. Ultimately we can’t resolve that debate.

“We have taken a position as a board that we believe there should be greater flexibility with the start and end dates of the schools.”

Tourism officials criticized the changes to the report. Vincent Chelena, executive director of the N.C. Travel Industry Association, said the original report accurately summarized how several districts are showing “blatant disregard for the law.”

“They are testing our legislators by not following the law and in the end hurting their case for earlier school start dates,” Chelena said in an email Thursday. “This irresponsible action has rallied parents to engage and many are questioning the decision to disrespect the law and the message it sends to their children.”

The school calendar law was passed by the General Assembly in 2004 at the request of the tourism industry and some parents. These groups were concerned about how the school year was starting earlier and earlier in August, cutting into summer vacation time.

The beach stand looking south from the Johnny Mercer pier at Wrightsville Beach, NC, on July 2, 2015, is crowded with thousands of vacationers. The school calendar law was passed with the support of the tourism industry, which was worried about how schools were shortening summer break. Chuck Liddy

Public schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Some schools, such as charter schools, year-round schools and some low-performing schools, are exempt from the law.

School districts have complained that the calendar law limits their ability to make up time lost due to snow, hurricanes and other emergencies. School officials say the calendar law is especially a hardship for high school students because it causes fall semester to end after winter break and doesn’t line up with the calendar used at community colleges,

In March, the state House passed a bill allowing school districts to start in mid-August to match the calendar used by their local community colleges. The bill has been stuck in a Senate committee.

Districts use year-round school exemption

In the absence of state action, some districts started citing the year-round exemption to start all their schools in early-to-mid August.

“We have implemented what we believe to be our version of a year-round calendar,” said Iredell-Statesville Schools spokeswoman Boen Nutting, according to WSIC. “That includes all kinds of optional summer session programs.”

The original version of the calendar report singled out 13 districts that DPI said it doesn’t feel had statutory authority to start school before Aug. 26 this year. The report was shared last week with school districts, prompting superintendents to complain about the wording.

“I don’t want any of us to kid ourselves,” Duncan said. “It’s a hot topic for superintendents and in a lot of our communities it’s a hot topic. We need to be sensitive about that before we go forward.”

State board members told DPI to make the report’s wording more positive.

Instead of saying DPI disagrees with the districts, the revised report says those schools have gone with a “flexible concept of ‘year-round school’” that they feel best meets the interests of children and parents.

The report says the districts “established student-friendly calendars in collaboration with students, parents, business partners, community members and local community colleges.” The report says that has resulted in summer programs that have provided extended opportunities for students.

“Our superintendents have been conscientious and a bit courageous in trying to work within the law for what’s in the best interests of students,” said state board chairman Eric Davis. “There are others who, rightfully so, will advocate for a different calendar for their best interests.

“It is up to us to lift up what’s in our students’ best interests and this item squarely puts the calendar in our students’ best interests.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.