Two Triad school systems — Davie and Alamance-Burlington — are attempting to gain legislative approval for more flexibility in their school calendars.
Local House bills were introduced on their behalf last week.
Davie County Schools wants permission to unite its school calendar with Davidson County Community College; the latter typically opens at least a week ahead of the public schools system.
House Bill 13 would give calendar flexibility to the Davie school board, as well as the boards for Catawba County Schools, Hickory Public Schools and Newton-Conover City Schools to coordinate with Catawba Valley Community College.
The bills face what appears to be very long odds of passage, if not being considered as dead on arrival, because of stiff opposition from the state tourism industry.
A controversial state law passed in July 2004 that went into effect for the 2005-06 school year prohibits public school systems from opening before Aug. 26 and closing after June 10 without permission from the state Board of Education.
Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, said Thursday that “since I joined the General Assembly, there have been over 200 (school) calendar bills, and they all were killed and not allowed to be heard.”
However, the fact HB13 has been placed on Tuesday’s agenda for the House Committee on Education K-12 could signal a thawing in how legislators view the school calendar bills.
In fact, if the bills advance, they could spur a flood of similar local school calendar bills on behalf of other school boards.
There is a limit of approving 15 local bills with the same or very similar proposed legislation since the governor can’t veto a local bill. At that point, the bills would be considered as a “public bill” with statewide implications and being considered that way.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said school calendar legislation has been its top priority since the state law was passed.
“We believe that with the breaking of the super-majorities in both chambers that there could be more room for reaching across the aisles on issues that have bipartisan support,” Jewell said.
“Many of the new legislators were endorsed by the association for being pro-education.”
Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, said Friday she submitted HB13 with the support of Davie County Schools and DCCC.
“Darrin Hartness, our former Davie County Schools superintendent, requested that I refine the same bill as last year,” Howard said. Hartness serves as DCCC’s president, which operates the Early College program for Davie schools.
“A number of other members from both sides have ask to be included,” Howard said.
Harntess said DCCC supports local school boards “having the flexibility to develop calendars that meet the needs of their districts.”
“That flexibility would allow school boards to better align with community college calendars and serve the needs of the thousands of students across the state who are enrolled in college coursework.”
Meanwhile, Alamance-Burlington wants permission to open before the Monday closest to Aug. 26 in the bill submitted on its behalf.
Lambeth has sponsored bills at least three times to unite the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and Forsyth Technical Community College calendars. Each bill did not get out of committee.
WSFCS spokesman Brent Campbell said Thursday the system has no plans to request a school calendar bill for the current session.
When asked about HB13 being placed on the Education K-12 committee’s agenda, Lambeth said “the education chairs want to give school districts more flexibility, so moving some of these is likely a result of their support.”
“But I doubt it moves much further and doubt there is any chance to pass a bill this session.”
Local school boards
The common denominator in the bills is that local school boards should be allowed to set the opening and closing dates of the school year.
An ancillary goal is allowing the systems to conduct first-semester final exams before the Christmas holiday break.
“A majority of states have late-August start dates, with no discernible impact on student learning or test scores,” the state Travel and Tourism coalition has said in its legislative agenda posting.
The issue was fiercely debated during the 2004 session, with coastal business owners and a vocal parents’ group hitched to a “Save Our Summers” campaign.
At that time, many school systems, including WSFCS, had set calendars beginning in late July or early August.
Their argument, which was adopted by Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, stressed the loss of family vacation time in August, as well as lower tax revenues from tourism spending.
Coastal business owners complained the earlier start of public schools meant the loss of teenage seasonal help that they couldn’t easily replace.
Meanwhile, school administrators, the state teachers’ lobby and at least 40 school boards approved resolutions in 2004 opposing any school calendar state law.
The laws allows the state Board of Education to approve public school systems to open as early as the Monday closest to Aug. 19 “on a showing of good cause.”
Jewell said most, if not all, of the state’s 115 school districts would like school calendar flexibility “so they can design their calendars to what best fits their communities and enables high school students to finish exams before the Christmas break.”
He said the association would support a public bill with statewide flexibility on school calendars.
Jewell said the association would support legislation that sets parameters, such as the start of the school year not be any earlier than the local community college.
Rep. Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth, who co-sponsored a similar school-calendar bill in 2013 on behalf of WSFCS, said Thursday these bills “just don’t get heard” in a rules committee.
“I can only guess that the reason these bills are ignored is that the tourism industry is still opposing any such efforts,” Conrad said.
The N.C. Travel and Tourism Coalition “supports the existing North Carolina law requiring schools to begin in late August — the traditional time for back-to-school.”
“Studies show that starting school in late August produces as much as $1 billion each year in economic growth through increased tourism-related sales.”
Lambeth said uniting the calendars make sense since two district schools — Early College of Forsyth and Forsyth Middle College — are on the Forsyth Tech campus. Students at those schools take college courses for credit while earning their high school diplomas.
There were at least eight local school-calendar bills filed in the 2017 session, including for school systems in Alleghany, Ashe, Davidson, Watauga and Wilkes counties and for Lexington and Thomasville city schools.
The Alleghany, Ashe and Wilkes school systems wanted to coordinate their schedules with Wilkes Community College, while Watauga County Schools wanted to coordinate with Caldwell Valley Community College.
Conrad said that “I am sure legislators are filing just to show that they are making an effort, even if fruitless, to interested parties back home.”
The odds of a school calendar bill being approved may be slightly improved since “the legislature has softened its stance on the issue,” said Mitch Kokai, policy analyst for Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.
“That’s due in part to an increased emphasis on local school system flexibility.
“But there are still plenty of legislators who want to see public schools stick as closely as possible to a traditional calendar that preserves most of June and August, along with all of July, for summer vacation.
Kokai said an organized Save Our Summers’ group continues to push for preservation of basic elements in the 2004 law.
The N.C. Travel Industry Association lists schools calendar as the No. 2 item on its 2019 legislative agenda.
“Protect North Carolina’s most precious tourism natural resource — summer,” the association said in its 2019 legislative agenda posting.
“Erosion of the current summer calendar will hurt the state’s tourism economy (which supports 218,000 North Carolina jobs), give fewer economic opportunities to students, and less time provided for what matters most — family.”