Union County board reverses vote to defy NC school calendar law
The Union County school board backed down Friday from its decision to defy North Carolina’s school calendar law, with most members maintaining a defiant tone but saying a lawsuit filed by parents left them no choice.
Todd Price was among six members who voted to rescind the decision to start schools on Aug. 9. State law requires most districts to wait until late August to open. Price said he still believes the early start is best for students, families and staff.
“However, simply put, it’s not legal based on current law. And as a steward of the county’s money, fighting a lawsuit with a zero percent chance of winning, it’s just a waste of money,” he said.
SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS
As a nonprofit newsroom, WFAE relies on readers like you to make stories like this possible. Our local reporting is vital to the health of our communities and our democracy, but we can’t do this without you. Please consider supporting our journalism by contributing as little as $10 today.
The Union County board followed the lead of several other Charlotte-area districts that have voted to defy the law, either this school year or in 2023. The calendar contains no penalty for noncompliance, and Gaston, Cleveland and Rutherford counties suffered no consequences for opening early this year.
The calendar law, which was passed almost 20 years ago with the support of the tourism industry, is unpopular with school boards across the state. Many say it’s better for high school students to synchronize calendars with community colleges and take exams before winter break.
Board member Gary Sides said being forced to comply with the law is “another example of public education getting hosed by the special interests and the politicians in this state.” He complained that other districts had gotten by with sidestepping the law, but “unfortunately we are in the position that two Union County citizens have joined the special interests and have taken legal action.”
He was referring to two parents who sued the school board earlier this month, asking a judge to rescind the illegal calendar and make the district pay their attorney’s fees.
John Kirkpatrick IV, the board’s only Democrat, said he regrets his decision to join the unanimous vote last month for an early start, knowing it violated state law.
“I would like to apologize for not upholding what I know is the right thing to do, for the sake of not just our young people but just doing what’s right,” he said. “You know, we all don’t agree with certain things, but it doesn’t give us the right to just break it.”
“This board has nothing to apologize for,” Vice Chair Jimmy Bention Sr. said later in the meeting. “This board knew what we were voting on … and we voted 9-0.” He said he would vote against changing the calendar back “as loud as I can, with as much force as I can.”
The vote to rescind the early start calendar was 6-3, with Bention, Sides and Sandra Green in opposition. The board then voted 8-1 for a new calendar that starts Aug. 28 and ends June 7, in compliance with the law. Bention was the lone “no” vote.
‘I’m not Walmart’
Dominique Morrison, one of the parents who sued, watched the special online meeting Friday, which started at 7:30 a.m. She owns a horse stable in Monroe that offers summer camps and riding lessons, and she said in the suit that shortening this year’s summer break would cut into her livelihood.
She said she was heartened to hear Kirkpatrick’s apology, but dismayed to hear other board members disparage her for challenging them. Board Chair Kathy Heintel, without using Morrison’s name, referred to “a plaintiff who sued us because of money,” saying “that is not OK."
After remarks about the plaintiffs in the meeting, Morrisons said, a spate of “mean” and “cruel” comments appeared on Facebook, including calls to boycott her business.
“I’m not Walmart. I’m a person. I’m one of them,” she said.
“It’s just disappointing that adults can’t own up for doing something wrong,” Morrison said. “If they wanted to do it right, they should have done it right. And instead, they’re throwing me under the bus and making me sound like this money-hungry monster, and I’m not.”
More suits to come?
Morrison and Francis Ward — who did not specify economic damages but, like Morrison, has children in Union County public schools — were represented by Mitch Armbruster, a Raleigh attorney. Armbruster says his firm represents tourism groups, but the Union County parents came to him independently.
He called the vote a victory and said other counties that have decided to defy the law could be next.
“I’ve certainly heard from folks in other counties. There’s been a lot of interest in the lawsuit,” Armbruster said Friday morning.
In the Charlotte area, school boards in Gaston, Cleveland, Rutherford, Cabarrus, Iredell-Statesville and Lincoln counties have also voted to start early without state permission.
Will the state grant flexibility?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials talked about starting early in 2023, but ultimately approved a calendar that complies with the law. This year’s legislative agenda, approved Tuesday, requests that the General Assembly allow districts to schedule school days that synchronize with community colleges, which generally start earlier than the current law allows.
During Friday’s meeting, several Union County board members urged constituents to push the state for change.
A broad bipartisan group of educators and elected officials have called for giving districts authority over their own calendars. That includes many school boards dominated by Democrats, such as CMS, and by Republicans, such as Union County. The North Carolina School Boards Association supports flexibility. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, has called for handing the decision back to local school boards, and the state House has approved calendar flexibility bills. But the Senate has refused to budge.
The General Assembly started its 2023 session in earnest this week. WFAE asked Senate Leader Phil Berger’s office Friday whether he plans to reconsider the calendar bill — either to provide more flexibility to districts or to add penalties for violating it.
“Sen. Berger does not plan to revisit the school calendar law,” replied spokeswoman Lauren Horsch.
A similar query to Sens. Michael Lee and Amy Galey, who chair the Senate’s education committee, got no response.