HIGH COUNTRY – A bipartisan school calendar flexibility bill seeks an automatic waiver process for High Country school systems to hold the first day of classes earlier than the current state law allows.
The bill, House Bill 207, would allow an earlier opening date than is currently allowed by state law for Ashe, Watauga, Avery and Mitchell county public school systems. Currently, public schools in North Carolina must start on the “Monday closest to Aug. 26,” with a waiver process that would start the school year a week earlier.
HB207 was filed by Rep. Josh Dobson (R-Nebo) who represents District 85 of Avery, McDowell and Mitchell counties, as well as Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone), who represents District 93 of Ashe and Watauga counties.
“Over their 12 years in school, students in the counties with the harshest winter weather spend about one-half year less in the classroom than a student in a warmer North Carolina location,” Russell said in a Feb. 28 statement.
“This is the most optimistic I’ve been about school calendar passage,” Dobson said. “There’s even more support than there has been in the past.”
On a “showing of good cause,” the N.C. State Board of Education may allow an earlier opening date based on how many days were missed during any four of the previous 10 years.
- If schools have been closed eight days per year during any four of the last 10 years, the opening date shall be no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 19.
- If schools have been closed 13 days per year during any four of the last 10 years, the opening date shall be no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 12.
- If schools have been closed 17 days per year during any four of the last 10 years, the opening date shall be no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 7.
Currently, the law mandates N.C. school systems have their first day of classes “no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26,” and allows a waiver for “no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 19.”
The bill notes that it has the support of the Avery and Watauga education boards.
As of Feb. 27, Watauga County Schools has missed 13 days of school, according to information posted on the system’s website. In the previous 10 completed school years, WCS has missed 17 or more days six times, the highest number being 26 in 2009-10. Avery County Schools has missed a record number of days in the first semester of the 2018-19 school year. Ashe County Schools Superintendent Phyllis Yates said that as of Feb. 27, the system has missed 14 days of school and that was “running pretty close to average.” Yates also said that there are usually missed days in March due to weather.
“I really don’t think the legislature will give us back full local flexibility as we once had, but I really like (the) bill,” Yates said. “With what we miss in the mountains, we would get to start (school) Aug. 7. That would just be wonderful, and would help us ensure testing got done prior to the Christmas break, like we’re used to.”
“Although some disagree with this plan, I have only one criteria for my decision to file this bill: what is best for student safety and student learning,” Russell said. “I hope we never have to open schools as early as Aug. 7, but it’s good to know we have the flexibility to do so if our students have missed a great number of days in previous years.”
Dobson has said that resistance to calendar flexibility came from the tourism industry, which depends on seasonal workers in the summer months.
Due to cancelling school on days with snowy and icy conditions, the school systems of the High Country region have resorted to canceling spring break, shortening Christmas break and Saturday school to reach the required number of hours set by the N.C. Department of Education.
Dobson said that he wanted to file a bill that would have a greater chance of passage than previous school calendar flexibility bills. Those past bills sought to give school districts total control over their local calendars.
“We know what the story has been with past school calendar bills — they’ve been put in committee and left to die there,” Russell said in a phone call. “We worked hard on this. We’re not going to file a bill and just let it die, we’re going to push for it.”
Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation Vice President Harris Prevost said that the park opposed school calendar changes.
“We’re a seasonal operation, so we lose money seven months out of the year,” Prevost said. “We have five months to make up our losses and try to make a profit. So August used to be our biggest month and it keeps shrinking. If school starts earlier and earlier ... August basically becomes September in terms of attendance. We lose our families and it’s something we can’t make up.”
Prevost said that Grandfather Mountain would rather see the school year go later into June than earlier into August.
Prevost, a school teacher for 42 years, said that current school-calendar legislation is “win-loss” with the tourism industry losing and that he would prefer “win-win” solutions. One such solution Prevost proposed was adding 30 minutes to the school day, saying it would take off two weeks of classes and reduce operating expenses.
Prior to the current legislation, Prevost said that some school systems were starting classes in late July.
“North Carolina ... had more teacher workdays than any other state in the country,” Prevost said. “(The school calendar) kept creeping out longer and longer. It was really hurting the tourism industry.”
Despite the differences on the calendar, Prevost said the park thanks the local legislators for helping them out, and says the park is pro-education and contributes through local and state sales tax.
“We are a great friend of education because we help fund education and they need more money, so it’s only hurting them when they hurt us,” Prevost said.
Carl Blankenship and Luke Weir contributed reporting to this article.