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Amidst legislative standoff, county schools seek calendar flexibility

With the calendar building process for the 2019-20 school year kicking off in March, Beaufort County Schools is joining a growing number North Carolina school systems seeking greater flexibility in how it creates its calendar. A resolution from Beaufort County Board of Education is seeking support from the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners to pursue legislative changes at the state level.

Under the current school calendar law, school systems have to start school on the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and can release no later than the Friday closest to June 11, with a minimum of 185 student days or 1,025 instructional hours. According to school system officials, this approach to calendar building is not working for local students and educators.

LOCAL CHALLENGES

At BCS, the current calendar law presents a variety of challenges.

Currently, the first semester for high school students does not end until mid-to-late January. With the way winter break falls during the holidays, that means two full weeks of vacation before students come back in January and have to prepare for End of Course exams.

“We’re asking the legislators to allow us to start right around Aug. 10,” BCS Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman said. “We’re asking for that window, which is almost equal to that window you have in January.”

The two-week disparity can also create challenges for students who take second-semester courses at community colleges, because they still have to finish exams for their first-semester high school classes.

Add the ever-present issue of weather closures, as well as summer learning loss and child nutrition issues that hit low-income students the hardest, and state law leaves little room for error when planning a calendar.

“When you’re creating a calendar, you already have 21 days you have to put in the calendar to say ‘We’re not going to be here,’ even before you look at the days when you are going to be here,” Cheeseman said. “That restricts you.”

COMPETING INTERESTS

Prior to 2004, control of school calendars was exclusively in the hands of local school systems. Now, a set of state-mandated guidelines restricts what schools can and cannot do, with educators and the tourism industry arguing on either side of the issue of calendar flexibility.

For both the N.C. School Board Association and the N.C. Travel Industry Association, the school calendar is high on the legislative priority list. The NCSBA notes that charter schools and low-performing schools are not subject to the law.

“Given North Carolina’s recent experiences with hurricanes Florence, Michael and Matthew, along with numerous annual snowstorms, locally elected officials could better plan and prepare for weather related school closings if they had more control to set local school calendars,” the agenda reads.

For the N.C. Travel Industry Association, the focus is on how changes to the calendar could hurt economies reliant on tourism.

“Erosion of the current summer calendar will hurt the state’s tourism economy, give fewer economic opportunities to students, and less time provided for what matters most — family,” the NCTIA agenda states.

Since the General Assembly convened for the 2019-2020 session, more than 20 bills have been filed seeking calendar flexibility for individual school systems throughout the state. Attempts to reach N.C. Representative Keith Kidwell and N.C. Senator Erica D. Smith for comment on the issue were not answered as of press time.