Senators promise budget won't threaten year-round schools

Posted June 21, 2016

— State Senate budget negotiators say they will redraft language in the $22.225 billion spending bill dealing with single-track year-round schools, saying Tuesday they didn't want to force 88 schools across the state to make sudden changes to their calendars.

"That wasn't our intent," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the lead sponsor of the measure.

Versions of the state budget have already cleared the House and the Senate, and a final bill is being negotiated by members of a conference committee that meets behind closed doors. Those negotiations are expected to produce a final bill in the next two weeks.

Although the budget is primarily a spending document, it is frequently larded with policy provisions such as the school calendar measure. Apodaca said the provision was meant to get at four or five schools that he was told had skirted the state's school calendar law, which requires traditional-calendar schools to begin after Aug. 25 and end in early June.

Word of the provision alarmed parents and administrators in a number of school districts, including Wake, Durham and New Hanover counties, especially because it would take effect July 1. Many year-round schools start their school year in July, and the provision would have forced schools to push those schools' start times to Aug. 29. That, in turn, would have sent parents scrambling for summer child care and change the calendar that many say is more convenient than a traditional calendar.

"Nine years ago, I decided to send my daughter to Reid Ross Classical Middle School not only because of what Reid Ross had to offer her academically but also because of the year-round schedule," Tanisha Walker, a parent of students in Cumberland County, wrote as part of an online petition. "Since then, I’ve had two children graduate from Reid Ross, and my son is a rising sophomore. ... This petition is to let our representatives know it is not okay to force our hand and take away our freedom in choosing to be part of a year-round calendar."

Wake County has 48 year-round schools, 11 of which are single-track year-round schools.

"We would be shifting the calendars of the families in 11 of our schools with very late notice," said Cathy Moore, Wake County's deputy superintendent for academic advancement.

The school year for those schools begins at the end of the July.

Both Apodaca and Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said the year-round school provision was one of the last differences between the House and the Senate to be resolved. New language would be drafted Tuesday, Apodaca said. Both senators said they expect House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger would make a final decision on the matter as part of the closing stages of budget negotiations.

It's unclear what that redrafted language will look like. However, Apodaca said most, if not all, of the 88 single-track year round schools would be able to keep operating as they have been.

Apodaca said he asked for the language in order to curb abuses in which school districts used the fig leave of a year-round school to operate outside the calendar dates set out by state law for traditional-calendar schools. He could not point to any schools that he believes are specifically violating those guidelines.

"We were told there were four or five that were really taking liberties with it," he said.

Year-round schools start in July

Progress on the provision will be watched closely by schools across the state.

Cathy Moore, who is no relation to the House speaker, said the single-track year-round schools are poised to accommodate changes in demand. Schools, she said, shift between having four-tracks and one depending on how many students need to attend. Alston Ridge Elementary School, she said, started out as a four-track school, moved to one track and has now moved back to four tracks as demand has changed.

"When we have the capacity to move back and forth between, that allows us to better meet our communities' needs," she said.

A little more than a decade ago, school calendar fights were some of the most raucous at the General Assembly. It led to the state's current school calendar law, which is meant to preserve a traditional summer break for most schools.

In addition to some parents, tourism industry officials also pushed for the longer summer breaks, to preserve both a steady stream of vacation travelers and their summer workforce.

"Within 80 miles of Hendersonville, there are 30 summer camps," Apodaca pointed out, noting that many of those camps rely on high school students as counselors.

Those concerns led Jim Hobbs, an old combatant from the earlier days of school calendar fights, to ask questions when he saw Wake County had single-track year-round schools.

"They're not following the rules," Hobbs said Tuesday, pointing to definitions of year-round schools published by the state Department of Public Instruction that define year-round school as "a multi-track school that remains in calendar for the entire calendar year."

But both Cathy Moore and Vanessa Jeter, a DPI spokeswoman, said there is no legal definition of year-round school that requires a four-track configuration.

Hobbs is a researcher who operates under the banner of the Hospitality Alliance of North Carolina. That is an informal group, and Hobbs is no longer formally registered as a lobbyist. However, he has ties to the North Carolina Travel and Tourism Coalition, which represents large hospitality organizations such as the Carolina Panthers, the North Carolina Vacation Rental Managers Association and the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The coalition certainly supports clarifying the definition of year-round schools," said Kara Weishaar, the group's executive director, who works for the Smith Anderson law firm.

She referred further questions to Hobbs.

Meanwhile, school officials across the state are watching budget negotiations carefully to see what the final outcome will be. While Wake County has not taken any steps to alert parents of the potential change, Durham County school board members have. Many parent groups have formed to petition lawmakers to walk back from the potential changes. State school officials are also hoping lawmakers roll back the provision.

"The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is not in favor of the provision and has historically favored locally elected school boards having the authority to set their local school calendars to meet local needs and desires," Jeter said. "We are especially concerned about the effective date of this item since, for year-round schools, the start of school is less than two weeks away and parents and school officials have already made plans for students. The timing is very challenging."


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