Back-to-school date lands Macon in courtWritten by Quintin Ellison
If this were a race, Macon County Schools would win for being the first in Western North Carolina — maybe even the state — to end summer vacation and start classes again.
Teachers returned Monday; students go back Thursday (August 4).
And that’s just too soon, in Sabrina Hawkins’ opinion. The Highlands resident has three school-aged children of her own in the county’s school system.
Hawkins and the North Carolina chapter of the national advocacy group Save Our Summers have filed a petition against the state Board of Education to try to force a later starting date. The case is scheduled for October.
The issue by then would be moot, of course, so pending the trial, Hawkins and the group sought a court injunction to postpone this week’s opening date until August 25. That’s the North Carolina mandated go-back-to-school date for all systems that don’t have a waiver.
A state administrative law judge last week, however, denied the injunction. The trial can go forward, though the group failed in delaying this year’s start date.
So what’s it all about — getting a longer tourist season? Hawkins said no, it’s not about tourism dollars, though she and her husband, Bill, do own and operate the 1880-built Highlands Inn. The lawsuit, she said, is about not taking away that important balance of schoolwork and play for children.
“This has nothing to do with my business,” Hawkins said. “And, I’m not an anti-school advocate — I just feel like they need a long break. What has it been, six or seven weeks off? It feels like we just got out of school.”
Macon County School Board Chairman Tommy Cabe said maybe it’s because he’s from an older generation, but he’s “just fine” with an early August start to school.
“I remember when we were in school, and we had three full months off in summer, but that’s because we worked in the fields,” Cabe said.
Up until 2004, all school systems had autonomy over when to start and end, as long as they met the mandatory number of school days in a year. But a lobbying effort orchestrated by the tourism industry, vying for longer summers and hopefully more family vacations, led to a state law preventing schools from starting back before the end of August.
School systems that see lots of snow days, and thus need the wiggle room of an earlier start date, could get waivers. The law also allows exceptions for individual schools for “educational purposes.”
Macon’s school board in February asked for a waiver to allow remedial intercession periods for students, sessions of intense work to help them catch up when they’ve fallen behind other students.
“The bottom line isn’t to try to get around the calendar laws, it is about student performance,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman, who added that 62 percent of students in Macon County receive free or reduced lunches. He said that school leaders want to “close opportunity gaps for these children.”
The N.C. Board of Education said OK in April.
In June, Hawkins and the Save Our Summers-NC group filed its petition. A July motion by the state board to dismiss the case was denied, paving the way for an eventual hearing
The case hinges on whether the state Board of Education should have granted waivers to all 10 Macon County schools under the “educational purpose” exception to the law. The school board should not have granted what, in essence, was actually a countywide waiver because that isn’t legal, according to the petition by Save Our Summers.
“It’s simply to try to build in enrichment and remediation opportunities for students,” Brigman said in response. Brigman said that’s the date school always started back until the new law was passed.