RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – What started out as a handful of school districts seeking approval in the North Carolina House to adopt flexible school calendars is about to become a statewide effort.

House Bill 51, which would have applied to seven school districts – including five in the Piedmont Triad – passed on first reading Tuesday and is scheduled for review by the House Committee on Local Government before moving to the Rules Committee.

Students hurry toward their school building for classes after disembarking a school bus.

But this local bill, which followed a recommendation last year by a House select committee and action in several counties to circumvent state law, has gained such momentum that it will be refiled Thursday morning as a statewide bill, one of its sponsors told WGHP.

“We filed this as a local bill because that’s so much easier to pass,” said Rep. Neal Jackson (R-Robbins), who represents a portion of Randolph County. “But about 35 districts responded and asked to be part of it. So we are going to refile as a statewide bill, and we’ll probably have 50 counties sign on.”

The bill provides for local school boards to determine the opening and closing dates for school sessions by changing the dates specified in state statute by about two weeks.

That means schools could open on the Monday closest to Aug. 10 instead of the current requirement of Aug. 26. The closing date could remain the Friday closest to June 11, but “a local board may revise the scheduled closing date if necessary in order to comply with the minimum requirements for instructional days or instructional time.”

Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mount Airy) (NCGA)
State Rep. Brian Biggs (R-Trinity) (NCGA)
Rep. Neal Jackson (R-Robbins) (NCGA)

This bill as filed specifically would affect Randolph County Schools, Asheboro City Schools and three districts in Surry County: Surry County Schools and Mount Airy and Elkin city school districts. Schools in Moore County and Gaston County – which has taken aggressive action with its calendar – also are listed in the bill.

Jackson was joined as a sponsor by District 70 Rep. Brian Biggs (R- Trinity), District 90 Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mount Airy) and Rep. Donnie Loftis (R-Gaston).

“We are hoping to pass this through the House quickly and get the Senate to take it up,” Jacksons said. “This passed the House in 2020 but died in the Senate.”

The bill says the change would take effect for the 2023-24 school year and apply only to schools on traditional calendars. It also specifies that if a fall semester were to conclude before Dec. 31 – an issue some parents have raised – school districts “may administer assessments prior to the conclusion of that semester.”

Providing flexibility

Biggs said he believes “in giving flexibility to districts because they best understand the needs of their students and staff.

“We can allow flexibility and still maintain that an adequate number of instructional days are met,” he wrote to WGHP. “This bill would allow for districts to get on the same calendar as the college and university systems, should they choose to do so. We are supporting the bill and proudly signed on as a primary sponsor.”

Deanna Brunner, a policy adviser to Stevens, told WGHP that Stevens signed on as a sponsor – its original documents didn’t list her – and fully supports the bill.

“She has co-sponsored school calendar flexibility bills in the past for her district so the local school calendar can coincide with the local community colleges’ calendar,” Brunner said.

Said Jackson: “We hope to make this a bipartisan bill.”

Drawing support

Since it was filed, the bill has picked up numerous bipartisan cosponsors, including six from the Triad: Reps. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett), Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro), Larry Potts (R-Lexington) Amos Quick (D-Greensboro), Dennis Riddell (R-Snow Camp) and Stephen Ross (R-Burlington).

State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro)

“I think I’ve signed on to every school calendar flexibility bill that’s been filed since the NCGA mucked with school board authority to set schedules,” Harrison wrote in a text message to WGHP.

Harrison has served in the House since 2008, and she was referring to the existing law, which was adopted in 2004 at the request of the tourism industry and parents to set the hard dates of Aug. 26 and June 10.

That statute has been in the parallax of legislators often because it took away local autonomy for circumstances that are not identical from the Manteo in the East to Murphy in the West.

Recommended change

In a draft report published in December, The House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future had recommended allowing flexibility for school boards.

“The Committee finds that the current requirement that schools begin no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and adjourn no later than the Friday closest to June 11 creates a school calendar that is not best suited to the needs of students and educators,” the report states. “To better meet those needs, the Committee finds that local boards of education should be given greater calendar flexibility.

“The Committee recommends that the General Assembly take action and change the school calendar law.”

During that committee’s evaluation, Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) had recommended a school year that began on Labor Day (the first Monday in September) and ended on Memorial Day (the last Monday in May), The News & Observer reported.

Some districts ignore the law

WFAE in Charlotte reported that school districts in Gaston, Cleveland and Rutherford counties had ignored the law and opened earlier last summer.

In Gaston County, a poll of parents found that 70% wanted the first semester to end before winter break (it now ends the third week of January), the radio station reported, because of block scheduling. HB 51 ostensibly would address that issue.

But in Union County, a vote last month by the school board to start the next school year on Aug. 9 drew a lawsuit by two parents, The Charlotte Observer reported.

One of the parents cited the negative financial impact on horse-riding camps she operates. The suit said the violation of state law could constitute a misdemeanor crime by board members.

Guilford County calendars

The Guilford County Board of Education had gone through an extensive process of gathering public input before approving on Tuesday night traditional academic calendars for the next three years.

The board said it had received 194 comments about the calendars, which adhere to state laws for start and end dates and exceed the state requirement of 1,025 instructional hours and meet other state requirements, such as 185 days of instruction, teacher contracts, 11 state holidays and no classes on Sunday.

The calendar also says that administrators plan to use the allowed five remote learning days allowed for emergency purposes and “to waive any additional make-up days for students if the state’s minimum hourly requirement for instructional hours is met.”