By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County Board of Education will decide Tuesday whether to begin the coming school year two weeks earlier than state law allows.

Three calendars will be presented to the board for discussion this week, including one labeled “Version C” that would move the beginning date for the fall semester in the 2023-24 school year to August 14, two weeks earlier than the August 28 starting date proposed in other versions of the calendar the board will look at.

Classes at Lee Early College would begin on August 8 and the year-round schedule for Tramway Elementary School would start for students on July 19.

A state law adopted in 2004 establishes schools may not start earlier than the Monday closest to August 26, unless a district applies for a waiver from the law because of “severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failures, or other emergency situations.” Exceptions such as these were written into the law at the request of legislators from mountain counties where winter weather can sometimes leave schools closed for days or even weeks at a time.

When the law was passed, it was championed by the tourism industry. Families needed enough time during the summer months, it said, to take vacations together and businesses that thrived on the tourist trade relied on student-aged labor to keep their services running at a profit.

The current calendar contains what many parents and teachers see as a critical flaw that impacts student performance. A later start in August doesn’t allow students to finish the semester before the Christmas break and by the time they return to classes in January, a “learning loss” has occurred that for some students can be significant.

But almost from the moment that the provision became law, a number of school districts began trying to get more flexibility with the calendar because it limits their opportunity to schedule end of the semester exams before the holiday break. Those exceptions have been hard to come by in the state legislature, where calendar modification bills routinely pass in the House but die in the Senate, where the influence of the tourism industry remains strong.

Three more counties in the Charlotte area – Gaston, Cleveland, and Rutherford – voted last summer to ignore the law and start their school year earlier, joining at least half a dozen others who had already done so. And at last week’s meeting of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, school board Chair Sherry Lynn Womack said Lee County may soon join them.

Calendar having harmful impacts on performance, Womack says

Womack spoke to the commissioners about the issue on February 6, making a case for linking the calendar change of almost 20 years ago with a decline in test scores at the three middle schools and two high schools.

Womack said the change would be a no-cost means of improving those test scores.

“If I told you that I could tell you a way to help our families, our students, our teachers, and increase the economy in Lee County without costing our taxpayers a dollar, I think you’d be more apt to listen,” she said.

Womack presented a series of slides showing a gradual drop-off in test scores at the middle and high schools. The data demonstrates that none of the five have met growth standards in almost a decade, and she contends this decline in performance can be directly linked to an absence of flexibility with setting the school calendar. A legislative solution will be needed, she said, to fix it.

“They are going to try to do this through a local bill that would add Lee County to the list of others who have already been granted exemptions from the law’s current provisions,” she said. “It may or may not be permanent. I just know that we need to do what’s best for our children and we need to support what our surveys and our community is telling us is best.”

The school board, however, may not wait on the legislature to do something about the issues created by a later start in the calendar. The board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday, and the issue is on the agenda for discussion.

But there is an inescapable fact that Womack acknowledged as she spoke to the commissioners. If the school board votes this week to ignore state law and adopt a calendar that would have schools begin two weeks before the allowed date, the Lee County Schools district would be violating the law.

The rule of law

It’s this question about the respect for the rule of law that caused the school board in Union County, North Carolina to change its mind after it chose to ignore the state requirements around starting dates. The board of education there voted in late 2022 to start the 2023-24 school year on August 9, but backed down on January 27 in a 6-3 vote that reversed their previous decision.

One member of the Union County board, Todd Price, still supports an earlier start to the school year but also realizes that getting into a court fight over it could be a losing proposition.

Defying the law by starting classes sooner “is not legal based on current law. And as a steward of the county’s money, fighting a lawsuit with a zero percent chance of winning, it’s just a waste of money,” he said.

Union County’s reversal came after two parents filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the illegal calendar null and void, as well as forcing the Union school board to pay their attorney’s fees. If the Lee County Board of Education acts in a similar way and adopts a calendar that doesn’t comply with the requirements of state law, the same thing could potentially happen here.

Womack made it clear that she had not come to the commissioners to ask for their approval to make a change in the starting date. State law assigns that responsibility to the school board. But she explained that her purpose in coming was to ask for their support and to encourage families with school children to reach out to their legislators and urge them to support efforts in Raleigh to change the requirements.

House Bill 86 was introduced in the state legislature on February 9 to give each of the 115 school districts in the state the same flexibility on starting and ending dates, and one of its co-sponsors is Rep. John Sauls of Sanford. This measure would allow schools across the state to start as early as August 10 and would do away with any existing waivers that have previously been granted.

But even before that legislation had its first reading in the House, it may already be doomed in the state Senate. A spokesperson for North Carolina Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger told The Rant said Berger has no plans to hold any votes on school calendar bills this year.

“It’s not on his radar this term,” the spokesperson said. “Not at all. It’s not going to happen.”