School calendar flexibility gets nod in House Education Committee

A flood of bills granting school districts calendar flexibility received favorable hearings Tuesday from the House Education K-12 Committee.

Districts want the flexibility to start the school year earlier, one wants to start as early as August 1, and to close later to address learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State law currently allows schools to start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and to end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. There are exceptions for some schools such as charter schools, year-round schools and low-performing schools.

Meanwhile, other schools want flexibility to align district calendars with community colleges calendars to aid high school students enrolled in college coursework.

House Bill 77 seeks calendar flexibility for Moore County Schools. It  would help the district to accommodate golf tournaments.

“What makes this different for Moore County is that we have major golf tournaments,” said Rep. James L. Boles, a Moore County Republican and bill cosponsor.

Moore County is home to the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club. The country club’s famous No.2 Course will host the U.S. Open in 2024.

School buses and parking lots are needed to host such events, Boles told the committee.

The school district usually receives exemptions every few years to accommodate major tournaments. HB 77 would give it permanent flexibility to adjust the calendar to adapt to them.

Support for the calendar bills was nearly unanimous. Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican, supports local calendar flexibility bills but voiced concern about those that apply statewide.

“Everyone is familiar with my attitude about the tourism industry and school calendar,” Iler said. “I think it should be labeled child abuse to send anybody back to school before Labor Day, and so, I’ll be abstaining or voting no on calendar bills.”

The state’s tourism industry has vigorously opposed allowing the school year to slip into months traditionally reserved for summer break. The N.C. Travel Industry Association wants families free during summer months to travel to state beaches, the mountains and attractions in between.

Louise Lee, founder and president of Save our Summers NC, a volunteer organization of parents, teachers and others who want to preserve a traditional school calendar, said lawmakers who spoke in favor of the calendar flexibility bills did so on behalf of superintendents and school boards.

“The piece that’s missing is who I’m representing; that is parents and teachers,” Lee said. “These people have been through enough this year without fighting once again just to preserve a somewhat traditional school calendar as a choice for families.”

Arguments to align school calendars to community college calendars and to set them up so students finish exams before winter breaks have been around for 17 years, Lee said.

“It is time to put these arguments to rest,” she said.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican, has filed a school calendar flexibility bill every year since 2013 when he began serving in the House.

“Those bills have never been heard,” Lambeth said.

He said the fact the bills received near-unanimous support in committee sends a message that the House supports allowing district officials to operate in a manner they believe is best for students.

Lambeth wants a list of schools operating on a traditional school calendar and one of the counties the bills will impact along with their school start and stop dates.

He also asked for a list of counties granted exceptions. Those include districts in the mountains that are allowed to start the school year early because they close frequently due to severe weather.

“I’d love to see all districts to give us a profile of where the state would look if we pass all of these bills through the House and Senate,” Lambeth said.

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