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Union County retreats from NC school calendar rebellion. What comes next?

A screenshot of the Union County school board's special online meeting regarding the school calendar held Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.
A screenshot of the Union County school board's special online meeting regarding the school calendar held Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

This story first appeared in education reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly newsletter. Sign up here to get it straight to your inbox.

Over the last several months, we’ve watched a series of Charlotte-area school boards vote to bring students back to school earlier than the state’s school calendar allows. Board members have talked openly about their reasons for bringing students back earlier in August, such as getting exams done before winter break and synchronizing with community college calendars. But I’ve yet to see any of them publicly address their decision to simply disregard state law.

Implicitly, the argument goes something like this: It’s a bad law, driven by tourism interests rather than educational merits. School calendars should be a local decision but we can’t get the General Assembly to give us back that authority. We don’t like the law, and there’s no penalty for breaking it. So let’s just ignore it and see what happens.

For the first few counties, what happened was nothing. Then a couple of parents sued the Union County school board, and apparently, the board’s lawyer told them they couldn’t win a lawsuit based on that kind of reasoning. At a special early-morning meeting on Friday, the board voted 6-3 to rescind the early start calendar, replacing it with an Aug. 28 opening day that complies with the law.

One member, John Kirkpatrick IV, apologized for going along with the unanimous vote to break the law, saying he knew it was wrong to break a law just because you don’t agree with it. Most of the others remained defiant, including those who grudgingly voted to rescind the early start. They groused about the law and the parents who sued, and urged constituents to lobby the governor and General Assembly for change.

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Of course, a lot of people have been doing that for years, including the North Carolina School Boards Association. In these hyper-partisan times, support for letting districts set their own calendars is truly bipartisan. School boards dominated by Democrats and school boards dominated by Republicans have asked for flexibility.

  • When the Republican-dominated Gaston County board brought students back on Aug. 17 this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg board Chair Elyse Dashew, a Democrat, praised their leadership.
  • State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, supports local control of calendars. So do members of the state Board of Elections who were appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
  • The state House has approved calendar flexibility bills with bipartisan support.

But the Senate has been holding firm on the 2004 law. And when I asked Senate leader Phil Berger’s office Friday if he was interested in revisiting the law in the current session — either to ease the restrictions or put teeth in them — the answer was no.

The session is young, so perhaps that will change. I noticed that the CMS board, which always asks for calendar flexibility, phrased this year’s request as seeking authority for districts to synchronize K-12 calendars with community colleges. Stephanie Sneed, the newly elected chair of the board’s Intergovernmental Relationships Committee, says that’s designed to emphasize the impact on students, rather than on local officials’ desire for flexibility.

Growing numbers of high school students across North Carolina take community college classes, a move that’s in line with bipartisan desire to see them graduate ready for college and/or careers.

Meanwhile, attorney Mitch Armbruster, who filed the suit against the Union County board, said it may not be the last. Armbruster works for the Raleigh-based Smith Anderson law firm, which he says represents tourism groups and has a history of suing government bodies.

“I’ve certainly heard from folks in other counties. There’s been a lot of interest in the lawsuit,” Armbruster told me Friday.

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.