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Call To 'Go Rogue' Highlights CMS Frustration With NC School Calendar Law


Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members Tuesday urged the district to defy the state law that dictates when the school year can begin and end.

Their remarks highlight long-simmering frustration with North Carolina's school calendar law — and perhaps signal that life is returning to normal after the pandemic.

The General Assembly passed the law in 2003, with support from the tourism industry and some parents and teachers. It requires school districts to wait until late August to begin classes.

Ever since, school boards around the state have griped about, lobbied against and sought exemptions from the restrictions. Critics say starting earlier lets schools give first-semester exams before winter break, which is more effective for students and teachers. And with a growing number of high-schools offering college-based classes, flexibility would allow K-12 schools to synchronize with higher education.

Districts 'Go Rogue'

In 2019, a handful of districts in the Charlotte region simply approved calendars with earlier start dates. They included Iredell-Statesville, Mooresville, Lincoln County, Anson County and Kannapolis.

When the CMS board discussed its 2022 calendar, Rhonda Cheek made note of that trend.

"I’m not saying that CMS should go rogue, ‘cause we’re big," she said, and paused. "Well, I am actually saying we should go rogue because we’re big and if we go rogue, what are they going to do? Like what would they actually do? Are they gonna come and, like, slap our hands? Cause, like, my hand’s ready."

Of course, a lot has happened since the 2019 calendar rebellion. The pandemic closed schools before that year ended, and the General Assembly mandated an Aug. 17 start date for 2020. Lawmakers said that was needed to help students make up for lost time.

Boen Nutting, spokeswoman for Iredell-Statesville Schools, says the state also tightened the definition of year-round schools, which ISS and some other districts had used as their justification for opening early. This year ISS and most other districts in the region will open Aug. 23, in compliance with the state law (CMS will start two days later).

Mooresville Schools Start Aug. 2

There is one exception: Mooresville Graded Schools, a district of about 6,000 students within Iredell County, will open Aug. 2.

"We certainly feel it is beneficial to students," said communications director Tanae McLean. "That’s the reason why we’re doing it, is because we think it is in the best interest of our students academically."

She says the district isn’t defying the law. Instead, it got an exemption based on the calendar it had in place before the 2003 law passed: "Basically you’re grandfathered. You can do a modified calendar."

Another complication this year: Districts are required to provide approximately six weeks of summer school, which eats a big chunk of summer break for employees who sign on and officials who have to plan logistics.

For Mooresville, it means teachers will report for the start of the regular year only one week after summer school ends. But the benefits include a weeklong fall break in October, a first semester that ends before winter break and a school year that ends May 25.

Efforts To Change The Law

This year, the North Carolina House took up an array of bills that would grant calendar flexibility to some or all districts. One specific to Mecklenburg County passed the House but stalled in the Senate. CMS board member Margaret Marshall said it appears to be a matter of priorities.

"We want to start earlier" she said, "but the Senate, I think, is concerned about the vacation industry."

Senate Leader Phil Berger’s office responded to a query about calendar flexibility by saying leaders remain open. But, the statement, quickly notes, “the Senate has long maintained that students and teachers should have a structured summer break and the consistency that comes with defined start and end dates in statute.”

Will CMS Rebel?

Cheek's call to go rogue was delivered in a light tone, but she said she's serious.

"We need to think about being bold," she told her colleagues. "I am all for it. Let's move that calendar, start us on the 20th, somewhere around there, about a week and a half earlier."

CMS board member Sean Strain said he wants to act on Cheek’s suggestion about going rogue: "Do this very decisively and publicly and transparently, and say we’re doing this in the best interest of our kids."

Strain and Cheek are the board's two Republican members. But while they may be sending a public message to their GOP counterparts in Raleigh, the district isn't likely to approve a "rogue" calendar at its next meeting.

On Monday, CMS will start asking families and employees for their preference on two proposed calendars for 2022-23. Both start classes on Aug. 29.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.