Year-round school budget provision sparks concern among districts, parents
Posted June 13, 2016
Updated June 14, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — A provision in the Senate version of the state budget that defines how year-round schools can operate has sparked concern among parents and school officials in Durham, New Hanover and other counties. They worry school districts and families will have to drastically rewrite their calendars and plans for a school year that begins next month.
Although the state budget mainly defines how the state will raise and spend $22.225 billion over the next year, budget bills are frequently crammed with policy provisions that only loosely affect spending. This year's budget bill, House Bill 1030, has already passed the House and the Senate, although there are dozens of differences between the two measures.
"This has the potential to be disastrous," Durham County Board of Education Chairwoman Heidi Carter said of the provision on year-round schools.
Parents, she said, make plans for vacations and track-out camps months in advance. A law that alters the school calendar at the last minute would force families and school officials alike to scramble.
Roughly speaking, there are two types of year-round schools in the state. Some of them operate on a four-track schedule in which three of the tracks are in class at any one time and one of the tracks is on break. This allows one school to handle more children. Other schools have only one track that spreads its class schedule and breaks throughout the year, foregoing a traditional long summer break.
It is the single-track schools that would be affected by the budget provision, which would take effect July 1 if it goes into law as written.
Carter said there are five schools in Durham that operate as single-track year-round schools. While some families simply prefer the calendar, educators point to studies that show students have fewer problems with forgetting lessons and transferring knowledge from one grade to the other when they don't have to bridge one long summer break.
The budget provision in question defines a year-round school as "multi-track" – effectively nixing any single-track year-round schools – and would require all such schools to follow one of three plans:
- A plan that divides students into four groups and requires each to be in school for three assigned and staggered quarters each school year.
- A plan that provides students attend 45 days of classes followed by 15 days of vacation, repeated throughout the year.
- A plan that creates five, nine-week sessions and requires students to attend four of the five weeks.
In addition to Durham, at least 21 other districts, including systems in New Hanover, Orange and Franklin counties, could be affected by the definition, according to data gathered by the North Carolina School Boards Association. Wake County has some year-round schools that follow the multi-track system and others that follow the single-track model.
"Since we don't even know where it came from, we don't even know what the motivation was," said Leanne Winner, director of government relations of the association.
She said that, even if the language requiring year-round schools was removed, each of the three definitions has problems for existing single-track schools.
"I've had over 200 emails since Saturday," said Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, adding that parents have been calling him.
He, like many interested in the issue, have had problems tracking down the author.
"It's been like cockroaches when the lights come on," he said.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, a lead Senate sponsor of education legislation, said he was unaware the measure was in the budget.
"It's not mine," Tillman said. "I don't know where it came from."
Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, a chairman of both the chamber's education policy and budget committees, pointed to Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the powerful Rules Committee chairman, when asked where the language came from.
"Save Our Summers came to me," Apodaca said, referring to a group that has advocated for strict school calendar laws that keep traditional-calendar schools from starting before August 25 or ending after the first week in June.
However, Louise Lee, Save Our Summers' founder and president, said that her group did not seek the change and added that a call from WRAL was the first she heard about the measure.
"This was totally, totally new to me," Lee said. "I promise you, I knew nothing about this."
Apadaca later said he was mistaken, saying that it was representatives of the travel and tourism industry who had asked him to push forward with the bill.
School calendar fights have frequently been vociferous over the past decade, with educators lobbying for more time with students. On the other side, parent groups along with vacation-dependent industries have lobbied for breaks that give teenagers a chance to work and families lots of summer vacation options.
Apodaca said there had been reports of school districts using the year-round option as a way to skirt the school calendar law and pile more classes into the summer time without going to a true, year-round calendar.
"It's gotten a little iffy there," he said.
That said, Apodaca acknowledged there might be issues with how the language in the budget is drafted.
"We're going to take a look at it in conference," he said, adding that lawmakers were "going to make sure (schools) are following the law."
When the budget, or any bill, is in "conference," it is worked on behind closed doors by a group of lawmakers appointed to work out the differences between the House and the Senate. There won't be a public debate until a final conference report is sent to the floors of both chambers. Lawmakers are scheduled to finish the state budget this month.