Normally there’s nothing controversial about kids going back to school in August. But in a handful of North Carolina districts near Charlotte, local leaders are defying state law – or at least stretching it – to roll their buses early.
North Carolina’s school calendar law mandates that public schools open “no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26.”
Yet public schools in Iredell County opened last week. After years of grousing about the calendar law, Mooresville and Iredell-Statesville schools and a handful of other districts near Charlotte have decided not to obey it.
"We decided that we should be able to make something like a calendar be local," said Tanae McLean, Mooresville’s chief communications officer. "We should be making a decision, along with our community and our parents, on what’s best for our children here in Mooresville, because we know what’s best for them."
A rebellion appears to be rising 15 years after North Carolina’s General Assembly passed its calendar law, which was pushed by the tourism industry. Other school systems that started this week or last week are Lincoln County, Anson County and Kannapolis city schools.
Alexis Schauss, chief business officer for North Carolina public schools, says the state is still tallying all the districts that have opened early without state approval.
"There may be about 12 or 14 school districts that are starting prior to the legislated date without a statutory support for that early date," she said.
The state’s calendar law says year-round schools don’t have to wait until late August to start. That generally refers to a system like Wake County has, where several schools start in early July and end in late June, with three-week breaks scattered throughout the year.
But several smaller districts have now decided that optional summer school should count as year-round status. Boen Nutting, communications director for Iredell-Statesville Schools, says her district got a letter saying the state disagrees with that interpretation.
"We know that folks think we’re stepping out of line a little bit and we’re hearing that," she said, "but we feel very comfortable with the decision that we’ve made."
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Besides the question of local control, objections to the late-August mandate center on two things: The calendar law puts traditional schools out of sync with high schools located on college campuses, which are allowed to start earlier to mesh with college calendars. And it forces high-school students to take first-semester exams after winter break.
"It was very hard to leave for winter break and then come back and have these kids immediately going into testing." Mooresville's McLean said. "This way they’re done, they can enjoy their winter break and start fresh when they return."
Students’ scores on those tests can shape not only their own grades but the A-to-F ratings the state issues to public schools.
For years a number of school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, have asked lawmakers to grant them flexibility to set their own calendars. State Superintendent Mark Johnson and the state Board of Education have said they support flexibility. But so far state lawmakers have declined to change the law or grant large-scale exemptions.
But they also have not spelled out what could happen to districts that don’t comply, Schauss says: "There currently is not a written policy or legislated action to take for school districts that have started prior to that legislated date."
Charter schools are allowed to set their own calendars. And Rowan-Salisbury Schools, northeast of Charlotte, got permission to open last week through a new state “renewal district: program that offers flexibility to districts in need of academic improvement.
The challenge from districts claiming they operate year-round schools could push state lawmakers or the Board of Education to clarify the definition of year-round schools, to crack down on districts opening early or to open the door for more to follow.
Iredell-Statesville’s Nutting says she hopes the door stays open: "We’re very hopeful that we will continue to have that flexibility as we move into the next school year because it’s what we think is right for kids."
Meanwhile, summer vacation continues for students in CMS, Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Stanly and Union county schools, which are following the state’s mandate — at least for now.