NC families worried they could lose year-round school calendar

State lawmakers are trying to ease the concerns of thousands of parents who are worried their children’s year-round schools might be forced to switch to a traditional calendar this summer.

The Senate budget would amend the school calendar law so that, starting July 1, the only year-round schools allowed would be multi-track schools where students are split into four rotating groups. If the change goes into effect, state records indicate 88 single-track, year-round schools, in which students all are on the same schedule, would have to revise their calendars within weeks of the first day of school.

With parents in an uproar, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca said the wording will be revised so changes won’t go into effect until the 2017-18 school year. In the Triangle, single-track schools are in Wake, Durham, Johnston and Orange counties.

“We’re going to make it right,” said Apodaca, who had inserted the year-round changes in the Senate budget after talking with representatives from the tourism industry. “It’s not going to change anyone’s plans this year.”

Senate and House budget negotiators are meeting behind closed doors to reconcile differences between their 2016-17 spending plans. Until the budget is official, parents are wondering about summer child care should their children’s schools now have to open Aug. 29 on a traditional calendar as opposed to in July or Aug. 1 on a single-track, year-round schedule.

“We’re certainly waiting on bated breath,” said Sara Ward, whose daughter attends Pearsontown Elementary, one of five single-track schools in Durham. “It’s definitely stressful here because we can’t line up camps. It’s a limbo that it creates for families.”

The change also is worrisome for staff at the single-track schools.

“I’m just going to wait and see what happens, and we’ll do our best to make it work for the parents if the change is made,” said Rhonda Jones, principal of Rand Road Elementary in Garner, one of 11 single-track schools in Wake County. “Hopefully it will not be changing.”

Calendar schedules

Most families send their children to traditional-calendar schools, which have summer vacations of two months or more. But in year-round schools, summer break is shortened so students typically have three-week breaks after every nine weeks of classes.

In 2004, the state legislature exempted year-round schools when it passed a law preventing traditional-calendar schools from starting before late August and ending after mid-June. The bill was backed by the tourism industry, which was worried about how schools were starting earlier in August.

The tourism industry wants the summer vacation season to last as long as possible because of economic benefits to the state.

Legislators also exempted a type of year-round schedule called modified-calendar schools but said no more could be added. But the calendar law doesn’t define what are considered year-round or modified-calendar schools.

As late as 2010, the state Department of Public Instruction defined year-round schools as multi-track and modified-calendar schools as having one track. DPI now says year-round is “a school that remains in session for the entire calendar year.”

Wake County’s is the only school district in North Carolina that uses the multi-track calendar, which can increase a school’s capacity by up to 33 percent by continually rotating students.

The number of single-track schools has increased, and school districts say there’s nothing in state law that requires year-round schools to be multi-track.

“Within the education community, year-round has a specific meaning,” said Leanne Winner, lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association. “There is no school district in this state that we can find that has abused it to get around the school calendar law.”

But Jim Hobbs, director emeritus of the Hospitality Alliance of North Carolina, disagrees. He said expansion of single-track schools is an attempt to circumvent the calendar law.

“When the calendar law was passed in 2004, nobody had heard of single-track, year-round,” Hobbs said. “It wasn’t a term. But it has spread.”

Lobbying against changes

Hobbs said what motivated him to reach out to legislators are recent actions such as how Lexington City Schools, in the Piedmont region southwest of Winston-Salem, is converting all of its schools to single-track year-round in 2017. Hobbs also pointed to how Wake County recently considered putting 12 more schools on the schedule before shelving the plan when parents objected.

But Hobbs said he never intended any changes to go into effect as soon as the 2016-17 school year.

When parents found out about the potential legislative change, they began contacting lawmakers and creating multiple online petitions.

Zeb Hallock, a parent at Hillsborough Elementary School in Orange County, created the Save NC Schools website to help mobilize fellow supporters of single-track, year-round schools.

“The travel lobby is doing their jobs,” Hallock said. “They’re trying to make money for their industries.

“The legislators are the ones not doing their jobs. Their jobs would be to prevent legislation that is not in the best interest of the people in general.”

Some school districts have gotten actively involved in lobbying against the year-round changes. In a YouTube video, Johnston County Superintendent Ross Renfrow urged parents at the district’s two year-round schools to reach out to legislators to “put a shout-out in their ear that you’re concerned.”

Amid the tumult, Apodaca said he intends to drop the wording requiring year-round schools to be multi-track. Apodaca said he envisions establishing a “standard year-round schedule” where students begin in early July and finish in early June. The Henderson County Republican said he doesn’t expect the changes to affect more than a handful of existing year-round schools.

“My children went to school under the standard year-round schedule and that’s what we intend,” Apodaca said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui