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25% of NC public school boards have voted to defy the state calendar law in August

In Gaston County, one of the first districts to defy North Carolina's calendar law by starting early, students have been on summer vacation since May 23.
Ann Doss Helms
In Gaston County, one of the first districts to defy North Carolina's calendar law by starting early, students have been on summer vacation since May 23.

The tourism industry’s plan for a uniform summer break in North Carolina public schools is eroding faster than the beach at the Outer Banks.

Twenty-nine of the state’s 115 school boards have voted to defy the law that requires most districts to wait until the last week of August to start classes, according to a state tally of 2024-25 calendars. That’s up from 15 districts in the year that’s just ending.

But on Wednesday, a judge ruled that coastal Carteret County, one of the new additions to the rebellious ranks, can’t open on Aug. 13. The Carteret school board was sued by residents who object to the early start.

The calendar rebellion began two years ago, when three districts west of Charlotte — Gaston, Cleveland and Rutherford counties — brought students back earlier than the law allows. That followed years of unsuccessful lobbying by districts across the state that want to open in mid-August and end the first semester before winter break.

“We know it would help improve student outcomes if we had more equal semesters (and) we were able to get through the first set of curriculum and testing before winter break,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Summer Nunn said recently. “It also puts less stress on our students who take a holiday break and then have to come back and take testing.”

The state’s largest districts — Wake, CMS and Guilford – have avoided joining the calendar rebellion. But the ranks of scofflaws have grown as it became apparent there’s no penalty for ignoring the law.

This chart includes Carteret County, which was ordered Wednesday to comply with the law.
Ely Portillo
This chart includes Mooresville, which says it has an exemption, and Carteret County, which was ordered Wednesday to comply with the law, among the defiant districts, based on the state's report.

Enforcement, such as it is, has been outsourced to anyone willing to sue the scofflaws. That happened when the Union County school board voted to start early in 2023. The district backed down after being sued by two parents, one of whom runs a riding camp that offers summer programs. Last year, some Republican senators introduced a bill that would authorize the state superintendent and residents of any county that defies the calendar law to sue and collect at least $10,000. It has not advanced to a vote.

The Carteret County lawsuit was filed this spring by residents who have children or grandchildren in public schools and who own surf shops and restaurants. A motion filed by attorney Mitch Armbruster, who also handled the Union County lawsuit, says that tourism is "the main economic driver of the Carteret County economy, and in turn, generates the tax revenues necessary to fund public education. The plaintiffs rely on the School Calendar Law in planning and running their business, and they rely on the school calendar in planning the year for their families, as well."

The chair of the Carteret County school board, Kathryn Chadwick, said Thursday the board will meet soon to discuss an appeal. But she said the board will probably pass a new calendar that complies with the law rather than leave families in limbo about their August schedule.

Chadwick said Carteret board members were frustrated seeing flexibility granted to charter schools and private schools that received public voucher money but denied to traditional public schools.

"Our state and federal constitutions require 'equal protection' of law. Our state constitution requires equal educational opportunities for all," Chadwick wrote. "With respect to the real benefits of school calendar flexibility, traditional public school students are not provided equal protection or equal opportunities with other schools, and this is wrong. Our defense in the calendar lawsuit was to bring this to the attention of the courts."

Lots of early starts

The 2024-25 tally was presented to the state Board of Education Wednesday. The board opted to pass it along to the General Assembly without discussion.

The report shows that only 1,579 schools, or 64.5% of North Carolina’s 2,448 traditional public schools, will wait until the week of Aug. 26 to open. Here’s how that breaks down:

  • Twenty-nine districts voted to open early without state permission, encompassing 493 schools. Most will start classes the week of Aug. 12, two weeks before the authorized date. Three — Mooresville city schools and Stanly and Surry counties — will bring students back the first week of August. (In 2023 Mooresville was listed as having a modified calendar exemption, but this year nothing is listed as an approved reason to start early. On Thursday the Department of Public Instruction confirmed that it considers Mooresville in violation.)
  • Twelve small districts have been granted waivers to open early. Most of them are in the mountains, where schools often close for snow and the calendar has to leave room for makeup days. Rowan-Salisbury is allowed to open early as part of an effort to reverse persistently low academic performance.
  • The state has 129 high schools located on college campuses that are allowed to open early to coordinate with the college calendars.
  • Some districts, such as Wake and Durham, have a mix of year-round and traditional-calendar schools, which is allowed by state law. The tally lists 87 year-round schools around the state, most of which will bring students back in July.
  • An additional 51 schools have been granted state permission to open early as part of a Restart effort to improve low performance.
  • Eighty-six districts will comply with the law, starting classes in late August for all schools using the traditional calendar.
  • In addition, North Carolina has 210 charter schools that are exempt from the calendar law.
This tally includes schools in Carteret County among those opening early in defiance of the law.
Ely Portillo
This tally includes schools in Mooresville and Carteret County among those opening early in defiance of the law.

The calendar law has been unpopular with many educators and local school boards since it was approved in 2004 The tourism industry, along with some teachers and parents, pushed for a law that would synchronize summer breaks across the state.

Several calendar flexibility laws have passed the House with bipartisan support, but the Senate has blocked them. About two dozen such bills, calling for universal flexibility or targeting individual districts, are on file for the 2023-24 session.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office has not responded to a WFAE query about whether he supports any changes to the calendar law this year.

Who’s starting early?

These districts are opening early with exemptions from the calendar restrictions:

  • Alleghany County
  • Ashe County
  • Avery County
  • Graham County
  • Haywood County
  • Jackson County
  • Madison County
  • Mitchell County
  • Rowan-Salisbury Schools
  • Swain County
  • Watauga County
  • Yancey County

These districts have voted to open early before Aug. 26 without state approval, according to the report:

  • Cabarrus County
  • Carteret County
  • Cleveland County
  • Clinton
  • Elkin City
  • Gaston County
  • Granville County
  • Halifax County
  • Harnett County
  • Henderson County
  • Hyde County
  • Iredell-Statesville
  • Kannapolis
  • Lee County
  • Lexington
  • Lincoln County 
  • Mooresville
  • Mount Airy
  • Person County
  • Polk County
  • Rutherford County
  • Sampson County
  • Stanly County
  • Stokes County
  • Surry County
  • Warren County
  • Washington County
  • Winston Salem-Forsyth
  • Yadkin County

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Updated: June 6, 2024 at 3:57 PM EDT
Updated June 6 to add information about Carteret and Mooresville schools and to correct the date when the calendar law first passed.
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.