By Richard Sullins |

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.