RALEIGH, N.C. — The fight to keep year-round schools voluntary returned to court Wednesday with attorneys for the Wake County school board and a parents group presenting arguments before the Court of Appeals.
Wake County Board of Education attorney Ann Majestic argued that nowhere does state law limit a school board's authority to assign students to year-round schools and nowhere does it require districts to make assignments voluntary.
Last May, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ordered the school board to get parental permission before assigning students to year-round schools.
"In this case, we have a decision that ignores clear statutory language and invents language that is not there," Majestic said. "There is no evidence in the statutes of a requirement of informed parental consent before a student can be assigned to a year-round school."
Attorney Robert Hunter, who represents the plaintiff, WakeCARES, argued parents are entitled to a uniform educational experience that is nine consecutive months.
"It's an equal-access right," he said.
Majestic pointed out that law only specifies dates when school boards can set school calendars and that a school year must be nine months in length. Year-round schools, she argued, operate on a nine-weeks-on, three-weeks-off schedule and are consistent. Traditional calendar schools actually run about 11 months, she said.
WakeCARES contends that forcing students to switch schedules would be unfair and would disrupt family life. Members have said they are hoping the three-member appeals-court panel will agree with Manning's decision to keep year-round participation voluntary.
“We have a school board that is unresponsive to parents' wishes and concerns,” group member Patricia Lee said.
WakeCARES members and supporters of year-round schools were at Wednesday's hearing, including the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children. It maintains the board will have "a much more difficult time integrating schools if their right to assign students is diminished."
"We know that we're not looking at the individual schools and how they benefit the individual parents," CCCAAC member Calla Wright said. "But we're re looking at the total system and how they benefit all children."
Wake school leaders say most of the district's 49 year-round schools are now under-enrolled because of Manning's ruling. Twenty-nine had 40 or more students opt out. Five of those schools had more than 100 students leave.
School officials say that year-round schools are necessary to help the system manage its booming student population. They accommodate about 25 percent more students. While three-quarters of students are in class, one quarter is always on break.
"Just for sheer capacity management, we do need to win this," school board member Eleanor Goettee said. "We are optimistic. We are hoping for a decision in a reasonable amount of time."
The school board said that if the appeals court rules in its favor, parents would have choices.
During her argument Wednesday, Majestic noted that before the lawsuit, four of the parents who sued applied for a traditional calendar school and were granted that request. The parents argued the choices were not close to their homes.
The appeals court's ruling could affect more than 130,000 students and their families. It could be months, however, before there is a decision.