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Lawmakers: Local calendar control may snag in Senate

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Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools is one of the area school districts seeking return of control over the annual school calendar to local school boards.

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By Peter Williams and Reggie Ponder
Staff Writers

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Most area counties support returning control of the annual school calendar to local school boards. However, any legislation allowing the change still appears to face an uphill climb in the state Senate, state lawmakers say.

Perquimans recently became the latest area county to adopt a resolution calling for local control of the school calendar. Pasquotank, Chowan, Camden and Currituck counties have all adopted similar resolutions calling for local control.

Perquimans commissioners adopted the resolution in response to a request by the county Board of Education.

Under current state law, school districts in North Carolina are prohibited from starting the school year earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and ending it later than the Friday closest to June 11.

The “one-size-fits-all” school calendar law was enacted in 2004, largely at the request of the state’s tourism industry. Tourism businesses sought the changes because a longer summer break provides their potential customers more time to vacation at the beach or the mountains. It also ensures more teenage workers are available to work longer in tourism-related summer jobs before they return to school.

Local school officials have been arguing ever since that they, not state lawmakers, should decide when the school year begins and ends.

In its request for Perquimans commissioners to support the resolution, the county school board said the current law leaves local school districts with little flexibility when trying to make up days lost to inclement weather.

The board also said the current calendar, which includes a longer summer break, also causes fewer students to retain what they’ve learned, creating a phenomenon known as the “summer slide,” which has a disproportionate impact on low-income students.

The calendar also hurts test scores because it essentially requires high school students to take semester exams after, not before, their winter break, the board said. The current calendar also makes it nearly impossible for high school students or recent winter semester graduates to take courses at a college or university during the spring semester, the board said. That’s because the second semester for high schools starts two to three weeks later than the spring semester for community colleges and universities.

Lawmakers in the state House have passed a number of bills designed to return control of the school calendar to local school boards.

In 2017, a bill passed in the House by a 100-8 margin to let any school district start its school year as early as Aug. 15 to align with the community college calendar. The House also voted 104-6 in favor of a separate measure allowing 20 primarily high-poverty counties start the school year as early as the Monday closest to Aug. 10.

Both measures never made it to the Senate floor.

That same year, then-state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, sponsored a bill that would have given control of the school calendar to the school boards in Camden, Currituck, Edenton-Chowan, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank, Perquimans and Tyrrell County. The bill never passed the Senate, however.

“One reason the issue didn’t pass the Senate was Sen. (Bob) Apodaca was adamantly against local control, and being rules chairman, he could determine what legislation gets a vote and what stayed in committee,” Steinburg said.

Steinburg, who is a now state senator representing Dare, Hertford, Hyde and Washington counties as well as the six he represented in the House, says getting similar legislation through the Senate is still difficult.

“It is an issue people are asking for us at the beginning of every session. But I understand in Dare, there are some who are very concerned with any change in the calendar that would negatively impact tourism,” he said.

“I think you are going to see significant reluctance (to a change),” he continued. “In Dare you are talking about a $1 billion-a-year business, and it’s big in Currituck as well. A lot of people do vacationing in the last two weeks (before the school year starts). I don’t see it as passing, but that is just my gut feeling. I don’t speak for the General Assembly.”

Ed Goodwin, who was elected in November to the House seat previously held by Steinburg, said while there are strong feelings on both sides of the calendar issue, he favors giving school districts some type of flexibility.

He noted that John A. Holmes High School in Edenton is in close proximity to College of The Albemarle’s Edenton-Chowan campus, and that there are students who attend both schools. He said more flexibility in the high school schedule would help them.

State Rep. Howard Hunter, a Hertford County Democrat whose district includes Pasquotank County, said last week he is introducing local bills for Pasquotank, Gates and Hertford counties giving them local control over their school calendar. He said a number of House members are similarly introducing local legislation, and that if enough of them do so, there could be enough movement for a statewide bill.

“But I don’t know if the Senate wants to do that,” Hunter said, providing an assessment similar to Steinburg’s.

Hunter said he and other House members have heard a statewide bill probably would not pass the Senate. He said he doesn’t understand why.

“To me it just makes common sense,” Hunter said, referring to local control of the school calendar.

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