Calendar flexibility eludes WNC schools

North Carolina is a huge state with tremendous climactic, economic and geographic diversity, but after a wicked bout of weird weather, including hurricanes in the mountains and blizzards on the beaches, the state’s one-size-fits all school calendar law still leaves many western counties singing the summertime blues.

Despite unusual unity within both the Republican-controlled N.C. House and Western North Carolina’s legislative delegation, repeated attempts to give schools local control over their own school calendars have been stymied by a small group of legislators who have over the years taken thousands from a tourism PAC that opposes calendar changes it says would endanger jobs in the tourism industry.

One WNC legislator says he plans a renewed push in the coming legislative session, but with kids caught between lobbyists and legislators and lots of cash on the line, will school calendar flexibility bills ever make it to the mountains?

 

Reading, writing and politics

Under current legislation in place since July 1, 2013, most North Carolina schools must start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26; additionally, students can be dismissed no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

What happens in between those dates can be unpredictable, weather-wise, but Haywood schools miss an average of eight days a year mainly due to snow and ice. 

“We don’t have the flexibility of starting earlier, which means we go later, which means you’re cutting into summer vacation,” said Dr. Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools. “If they would give us beginning dates that we can begin earlier then we would not have to worry about all of this, because that way you could really build your calendar with those extra days in it.”

Last March, Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, sponsored a bill that would have let some schools start as early as the Monday closest to Aug. 10. The School Calendar Flexibility Pilot Program passed the House 104-6 on April 6 — including ayes from Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville and Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City — and was sent to the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Operations on April 10. 

Also on April 10, the House passed by a vote of 100-8 another Corbin-sponsored bill supported by Presnell and Clampitt designed to give local school boards the flexibility to align school opening dates with those of the local community college, or no earlier than Aug. 15. The next day the bill was sent to the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Operations.

Both H389 and H375 remain in the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Operations — that’s where House bills go to be assigned to a relevant Senate standing committee for further study. 

If those bills make it out of the rules committee, and then out of the standing committee — like the Senate Committee on Education/Higher Education — they’re returned to the House for reconciliation and then can become law. 

But at any point in that process from the Senate rules committee back to the House, a bill can simply be ignored, which is why many call the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Operations “the place where bills go to die.” Currently, there are almost 600 such bills sitting in the rules committee, most of which will never see the light of day. 

Although Corbin isn’t the only WNC legislator supportive of school calendar flexibility, he has been at the forefront of the issue, which he says isn’t one of economics but is instead one of education. 

Corbin represents four far-western counties, including Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon, where superintendent of Schools Dr. Chris Baldwin says he’d like to see more flexibility.

“Inevitably, you have inclement weather in the spring semester,” he said. “I remember a couple of years ago when I was principal at Franklin High School we hadn’t finished first semester testing until the first week of February.”

This year, Macon schools have missed on average five days each, but in the recent past, that number has been as high as eight to 10. 

Corbin’s fellow WNC Rep. Presnell supported both bills, and still supports the idea in principle.

“We in Western North Carolina get more snow than the rest of the state,” she said. “Albeit I was excited to see some snow in the East this past January. It allowed them to really see what we have to deal with every winter.”

Presnell represents Madison and Yancey counties as well as a portion of Haywood County. 

“Right now we only have two more days that we can actually take off without extending into Saturdays or taking from spring break. We’ve missed 10 days this year, but we average eight,” Garrett said. “It’s very unpredictable. A couple of years ago I think we went to 14, and it’s only the middle of February now. We get snow until March and April.”

The bulk of Haywood County falls under the jurisdiction of Rep. Clampitt, who like Presnell and Corbin supported both bills, but Clampitt also represents Jackson and Swain counties. 

“We are unique in our situation based on location and weather, and we need to be able to have the opportunity and flexibility to work with our schedule based on that,” Clampitt said. 

Newly-hired Jackson County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kimberly Elliott, who has served in a variety of assistant and interim superintendent roles there over the past five years, says she believes there is lots of local support for more flexibility, particularly in regards to aligning with Southwestern Community College’s schedule as H375 would allow. 

Elliott said that although Jackson schools typically lose between eight and 10 days a year due to inclement weather, this year’s totals have been much higher due to a particularly rare occurrence. 

“Hurricane Irma [in early September, 2017] caused five days closure as it drove its way through the mountains,” she said. “Blue Ridge has lost 16 total days and Smoky’s lost 12.”

In Clampitt’s home county of Swain, the school district’s Public Information Officer Toby Burrell said that this year they’ve lost seven days to weather. 

“Obviously, we’d love to be able to control our calendar,” Burrell said. 

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, represents the seven westernmost counties in North Carolina, including all of Corbin’s and Clampitt’s. He too supports school calendar flexibility, but is frank in his assessment of the situation. 

“I addressed this in my first term back in 2011,” Davis said. “People who know me know that I come from a background of local government — I’m for giving local school boards the authority and responsibility as long as I can hold them accountable. But it’s not going to get through the Senate, and I’m not spending any more time on that.”

 

PACgraph

Class and cash

Davis isn’t on the Senate’s rules committee, where H389 and H375 still languish, but Southport Republican Sen. Bill Rabon is.

Rabon didn’t return a call seeking comment on the bills, but he chairs the powerful committee and since 2012 has accepted at least $5,500 from the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The NCRLA is an industry advocacy group that advances its priorities through a PAC established in 2005, just after a spate of school calendar modifications birthed the crux of the current school calendar law. 

According to its website, NCRLA’s recent legislative successes include the passage of the Brunch Bill allowing for earlier alcohol sales on Sundays, and the continuing opposition of bills like H389 and H375. 

“NCRLA supports our school calendar law and opposed efforts to change it,” reads the group’s website. “This protects the summer tourism season and the thousands of jobs that it provides.”

The NCRLA “protects” that season by making thousands of dollars in contributions to North Carolina legislators, including almost everyone on the Senate’s rules committee. 

But does it really need protection? According to an economic impact report issued by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association in October 2017, almost $24 billion was spent in North Carolina by domestic and international travelers in 2016, a 4.2 percent increase over 2015. 

That spending comes on retail goods, recreation, entertainment, transportation, lodging and food, which alone accounts for more than 30 percent of all tourism spending. Lodging ranks second. 

“The sooner you start, the sooner you finish, but you’re still going to have the same amount of days out [of school] each year,” Garrett said. “All you’re doing is moving it.”

Of the 19 other members of the committee besides Chairman Rabon, only three — Sen. Ben Clark, D-Raeford, Sen. Paul Lowe, Jr., D-Winston-Salem and Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr., D-Durham — haven’t accepted any contributions from the NCRLA, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. 

The other 16 committee members have accepted contributions from the group for as little as $200 and as much as $3,500 dating back to 2008, which may explain in part why attempts even predating Sen. Davis’ tenure, including most recently H389 and H375, have failed. 

“I’m not sure anything has changed as far as how we feel about them,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Jacksonville, told the Charlotte News & Observer right around the time those two bills were being passed in the House. 

Brown has taken more money from the NCRLA, $13,500 since 2008, than anyone else on the Senate’s rules committee. 

Davis, on the other hand, has never taken a nickel from the group, nor has Presnell, Corbin or Clampitt. 

Even Clampitt’s predecessor, Waynesville Democrat Joe Sam Queen — who will oppose Clampitt again for the fourth time in elections this fall — likewise never received a contribution from the group, despite his long history of service in both the Senate and House before Clampitt beat him in 2016.

In addition to the NCRLA, others also advocate for the tourism industry and oppose school calendar flexibility. 

Presnell mentioned a group that doesn’t appear to be a PAC registered with the state, but does appear to have a long history of opposing reform. 

“There is a lobbying group called SOS, Save Our Summers,” said Presnell. “There seems to be several summer camps in the Hendersonville area and the hotels at the beach. They would like to all have the same date for end of school.” 

Rather than focus on the purported economic damage to the tourism industry, SOS makes emotional appeals drawing on the sanctity of summer for schoolchildren and promises a vigorous defense of the status quo. 

“Now is certainly not the time to be lulled into inaction because the law is in place,” reads the website of the group, which didn’t return requests for comment. “If NC citizens take that for granted, they could soon find themselves without the option of a more traditional school calendar.”

 

Counting down the minutes

Unless or until there’s a change in law or a change of heart among members of the Senate’s rules committee, Davis’ well-informed prediction about school calendar flexibility appears to be valid. 

Some counties, however, have been able to take advantage of a 2011 law that allows districts to measure school years not only in terms of days but also in hours.

“What I have noticed is there is some flexibility with the calendar, as some school systems do change the time children arrive or leave the school,” Presnell said. “Some, only by 15 minutes a day added up over time can come close to what they need.”

Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties all currently use the hourly method, which provides a small bit of flexibility.

“We have added 10 minutes to each school day, beginning Feb. 12,” said Jackson County’s Elliott. “But we still have the option to go on Saturdays, and as a last resort, into spring break, which is five days, if needed.”

It’s a dubious proposition cutting into spring break, said Elliott, since it disrupts preplanned family excursions; even using one day of spring break means higher absenteeism, she said, because families often can’t cancel a weeklong trip just because school is open on one of those days. 

Haywood County explored the issue of the hourly calendar around this time last year, but it went nowhere because of concerns over hourly employees like bus drivers and cafeteria workers who would likely see their hours cut. 

Next fall, though, Haywood will begin operating under the hourly calendar, a decision made in a board meeting Jan. 9. HCS Board Chairman Chuck Francis said on Feb. 12 the hourly workers would be given small raises to compensate for the reduced hours. 

According to Garrett, that will give Haywood schools a modicum of flexibility. 

“We already meet that [state mandated] 1,025 hours, and we go over it. We’re at 1,065 or whatever,” she said. “We could miss up to 10 days and still have the hours. But do you want to miss 10 days? No. I think they would forgive a certain amount, but then we don’t want to go beyond that because it’s going to interfere, I believe, with the learning process.”

Achieving high performance as compared to the rest of North Carolina’s schools has been Garrett’s priority during her 13-year tenure as superintendent, as well as her 40 years teaching and working in the district. 

Another benefit to an earlier start cited by Garrett could help HCS improve on its top 10 percent rank over the past two years — students would in all likelihood be able to complete testing at the end of the first semester before they leave for Christmas vacation; often, because of weather-related cancellations in the fall, the testing doesn’t occur until after the lengthy holiday break. 

“That’s very important. That’s one of the reasons we went to the hourly calendar for next year, so the students in high school could be tested before they got out for Christmas,” Garrett said. “We’ve always had good test results, but would they be better? To me, even as a student in college I wanted to take my tests before I got out for Christmas and we always did, which was great. Coming back from Christmas you can start fresh with your new semester, which would be a real plus.”

Yet the hourly calendar in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties remains a less effective substitute for true local control of school calendars, according to both administrators and legislators. 

Corbin said Feb. 9 he plans to reintroduce a school calendar flexibility bill in the General Assembly soon, but Garrett shares the same outlook as Davis. 

“Every year we do this and nothing happens,” she said. “Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve always talked it, but we’ve never walked it.”

Corbin, though, still wants to entrust the flexibility — and responsibility — to local school boards. 

“Keep in mind, these are publicly elected boards,” he said. “If people don’t like how they set the calendar, vote them out.”

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