By Richard Sullins | email@example.com
The Lee County Board of Education voted 6-0 on Tuesday to begin the 2023-24 school year two weeks earlier than originally planned – on August 14 – and in defiance of a state law.
The issue has long been a bipartisan priority for many groups in the county. But it wasn’t until the school board shifted to a Republican majority in the 2022 election that enough critical mass emerged to take action in the face of a state law that’s been on the books for almost 20 years.
That law stipulated no school system may start its academic year before the Monday closest to August 26. At the time of its passage in 2004, the bill found significant allies among the North Carolina tourism industry, who believed it necessary to help related businesses retain a large enough pool of student workers for summer activities, coupled with the desire of families to have more time available in the hot days of summer for family vacations.
Board members listen to survey responses
But one unintended consequence of a later start was that the fall semester didn’t end until the middle or latter part of January, several weeks after returning from the holiday break. That meant many students could suffer from “learning loss,” or educational setbacks many students experience during extended periods away from the classroom.
A survey on the issue conducted after the new Republican majority took office last December received more than 1,400 responses. 79.3 percent favored changing the starting date from August 28 to August 14.
This earlier start will also mean the fall semester will end – with exams completed – before the holiday break. Classes at Lee Early College will begin on August 8 and the year-round schedule for Tramway Elementary School still starts for students on July 19, as previous versions of the calendars for 2023-24 have established.
Consequences for breaking state law?
The law doesn’t contain language establishing a specific penalty for intentionally violating state law on school calendars. But language from a lawsuit filed against a similar action taken by a school board in Union County may provide insight as to what sanctions could potentially be imposed in the event of a lawsuit.
The Union County school board in December adopted a policy very much like the one adopted Tuesday by the Lee County board. The Union County board rolled back the starting date there to August 9, almost three weeks before the date allowed by state law.
A lawsuit filed by a Union County parent and a second parent who claimed damages as a business owner spoke to the possible penalties that could be imposed on those members who defied the law.
“The (Union County) Board adopted this calendar in intentional violation of the law and in violation of their oath of office to uphold the laws of this State. The action of the Board’s members could even constitute a criminal misdemeanor which may subject them to removal from office,” the suit read.
The Union County board ultimately reversed its decision.
As local board members spoke about the proposal on Tuesday, it was clear they were aware their vote to would be in violation of state law. None of the board’s members asked their attorney, Stephen Rawson of the Raleigh-based Tharrington Smith firm, for advice or input before the vote.
Republican member Sandra Bowen made the case for sticking with the requirements of the current state law. She was the only member to abstain from the vote.
“I just want to make sure that we are abundantly clear that Calendar C does not abide by North Carolina state law and as such, when we take our oath of office to uphold … the laws and constitution of the state of North Carolina, that we place our hands on the Bible and swear to uphold that law as it exists, whether I like that law or not,” she said. “I want to make sure that the public understands that whether the calendar passes or not, that there is a possibility that an injunction could be issued that would stop it from going into effect and that until the state legislature changes the law, Calendar C will be in violation of the state law.”
But the other members were less concerned about the potential for legal challenges. For many of them, the issue took precedence and they saw it as a line that needed to be drawn.
Board vice chair Eric Davidson, a Republican, drew a historical parallel.
“In 1517, a man who believed that the church had become one that was unintended nailed 95 statements to the church door,” he said. “And because of his action, we have the word ‘protestant,’ and in that word is its root word, ‘protest,’ and we can go back through the course of history and see that there were times when people needed to take a stand.”
Republican member Alan Rummel maintained “we do have local authority to adopt the calendar of our choice. I railed the previous board for giving up that authority on at least one instance.”
Another Republican member, Chris Gaster, supported ignoring the state law.
“I’m willing to stand up against the law, so be it, if it’s for the betterment of our children,” he said.
The proposal to change the calendar for an earlier start also drew support from the board’s two Democratic members. Member Jamie Laudate spoke of the difficulty in going against a law enacted by another governing body and said he had prayed about the issue and had spoken to others about it.
“It’s a no-brainer as far as being of benefit to our students, our teachers, our community, to our stakeholders, to our county taxpayers. It’s revenue-neutral and not a decision taken lightly but it’s a decision I think we need to make,” he said.
Member Patrick Kelly wished the new calendar had been adopted years ago but expressed gratitude that its day had come.
“I’m a little bit jealous that I’m not sitting in the chairman’s seat tonight as we talk about this. We did everything we could back then to make this happen except break the law. I’ll say this tonight. This is broke. So, let’s fix it,” he said.
What happens next
Board Chair Sherry Lynn Womack, a Republican, appeared before the Lee County Board of Commissioners earlier in February to ask for a resolution supporting a change in the state law. An item to adopt such a resolution is on the agenda for this coming Monday’s meeting.
Meanwhile, two bills are working their way in the state legislature on the calendar issue. House Bill 86 was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 9 to give school districts the same flexibility on starting and ending dates. Among its co-sponsors is Rep. John Sauls of Sanford. The measure would allow schools to start as early as August 10 and would do away with previously granted waivers. A slightly different bill has been introduced in the state Senate.
But it will be an uphill push for either of the measures to make it into law. Republican Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger’s office told The Rant last week that Berger has other priorities this year.
“It’s not on his radar this term. Not at all. It’s not going to happen,” a spokesperson said.
So, we are breaking state laws now ??
It’s ok, it’s for the children *cough, cough*
This will be interesting to see what happens !
Didn’t know the Lee county board of education had the power to break a state law , wow , what else can they do ?
I may have trouble with my reading comprehension, IMHO I see this as a positive. There was unanimous support by the members of the BOE. There was almost 80% support from those that were surveyed in the public. We have an obvious publicly supported decision with solid bipartisan support. Counties should be able to make decisions that are best for their counties. Yes it is breaking a law. We aren’t talking about a law that protects life, liberty, or property. We are talking about a law that dictates how individual counties conduct business. Why was that law passed? Was it for the students? Was it to save money? I personally don’t know at this point, I will research that. I see this as a win for all sides that despite our political affiliations, we came together and agreed on something that both sides believes is best for the students, teachers, and parents. I am sure there is going to be a minority of people that don’t like this and they will bring legal actions. Ask yourself are we seeing Democracy in action? I think so. Can we for once recognize a good thing without trying to poo poo on it?
The decision was not unanimous; there was one abstention. Also, you stated, “Yes it is breaking a law. We aren’t talking about a law that protects life, liberty, or property.” We agree that the law has been broken by elected officials. I agree that county officials should be able to make decisions that are in the best interest of its citizens. However, did you ever wonder why elected officials vow with their hand on a Bible and state “I do solemnly and sincerely swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States; that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the State of North Carolina, and to the constitutional powers and authorities which are or may be established for the government thereof…?
Citing biblical precedent and Martin Luther’s 95 theses, the Board of Education voted to adopt Plan C. This is a violation of state law. With one abstention, each violated their oath of office.
Also, any federal funds received by the District are now in jeopardy of being lost. In order to receive federal funds, state law must be followed. Another point is the agency that accredits the the diplomas that graduating seniors receive. Again, the first rule of our regional accreditor is that state laws must be followed. As a result, we are putting our accreditation in jeopardy, which means high school diplomas issued by Lee County schools will not be recognized by any college or university.
The General Assembly isn’t perfect and they may move slowly. There is due process for what the district wants with a state calendar and the General Assembly has not taken action. Local boards have no right to break the law that they are sworn to uphold.
By the way, there is no evidence that Plan C will increase morale or test scores. Union County tried the same thing and quickly reversed course after learning the ramifications of their decision.
By the way, isn’t it interesting that $25,000 in unspent funds has been found…accrued over five years. It’s always been there! What’s scarier is going back 10 years. We don’t know how much money are in the coffers?
I thought this was a pretty fair and well-written argument that explained the public support, the various opinions of the BOE members and the possible consequences behind this calendar change. The faux outrage over the BOE voting to “break the law” rings a ittle false. The article cites the history of the law being designed to protect tourism and employee labor, the counterargument is the harm that it has probably caused to student’s education with the extended holiday break then semester midterms. Your outrage over “breaking the law” is actually supporting the commercial interests over the welfare of the children and I suggest you find another avenue to attack this BOE which is taking bold actions that they communicated prior to the last election and are now following through on.
I don’t disagree with your comments about the General Assembly’s reasoning for the current school calendar. However, taking “bold action” and actively stating, “yea, we’re breaking the law” are very different. My quibble involves two points: 1. The willingness of elected officials to openly pass motions that are in violation of current general statute. 2. The ramifications of these decisions, which will negatively affect our students, teachers, and support staff. If the Board has not violated § 115C-84.2., then why did each state the same? Why not simply petition the General Assembly for an exemption to the current statute? There are some districts that were granted exemptions due to extenuating circumstances. What kind of message are we sending? If they are not breaking the law, what are they doing?
It sounds like they are doing what you suggest concurrently by asking the County to petition the state. I admit we are approaching times of greater and greater civil disobedience. Just recently in this state there were Sheriffs rebelling against some state actions with COVID, and in other states there are rebellions against gun control (whether or not I agree with them!). It is perpetually debatable for our rights to object to “bad laws” such as Jim Crow, etc which over the decades will be judged differently by successive generations, whereas other public officials are allowed to apply their “discretion” in upholding or prosecuting different laws. It is a can of worms which can have very ugly ramifications I admit—ultimately this is one reason why I believe we need to stop passing so many laws to control every aspect of our lives. We all “break the law” every day in some manner. I personally believe the kids have been given such a raw deal with the school shutdowns that every county BOE should be trying innovative ways to help their own students. There may always be disagreement with the actions of this (and previous) BOE’s but we should all give them a little credit for trying to do what they feel is best for the kids—the good thing is the results of this calendar change( if it sticks), can be judged by the next election cycle.