School calendar bill seeks earlier start dates
by Kellen Moore
Rep. Jonathan Jordan has introduced a bill that would give school boards in Ashe and Watauga counties the authority to set any school start date they wish next school year.
But since the bill was filed March 5, no movement has occurred, and Jordan expressed doubt that the change would have enough support to become law.
"Both school boards and me, we're one on this, about trying to get as much flexibility as we can, because counties face different challenges," Jordan said.
The current school calendar law, which changed last year, requires schools to open no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and close no later than the Friday closest to June 11.
Schools that meet certain conditions may apply for a waiver to begin school slightly earlier -- no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 19.
Jordan's proposal, House Bill 215, would strike all language mandating start and end dates and would leave school calendar decisions in the hands of the local boards of education. If enacted, the law would apply only to Watauga and Ashe counties and would begin with the 2013-14 school year.
At least 13 similar House bills have been filed this session that would allow for earlier school start dates.
Most are local bills that mirror the language of Jordan's bill. Together, the local bills would affect a total of 23 school systems.
Four of the bills dictate that schools would have to complete exams before the winter break. A few ask that flexibility be granted for schools to coordinate their schedules with the local community college.
Only two of the bills -- H129 and H258 -- attempt to change the
school calendar law with a comprehensive, statewide approach.
For years, the school calendar has been a point of contention at the state level, with education agencies battling coastal businesses, tourism and summer camp industries which rely on student workers and vacationing families to survive.
If Jordan's bill is treated like most local bills -- where legislators defer to the judgment of the representative who filed -- it will likely pass, he said.
But considering the controversial nature of school calendar discussions, it could easily go to the other way.
"I just don't know that anything will happen because I don't believe it will do anything in the Senate," Jordan said. "If my leadership is looking at the Senate and thinking, well, nothing's going to happen in the Senate, they're not going to waste time with it in the House."
Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone said there has been quite a bit of discussion on the Senate side, but he was not aware of any school calendar bills being filed.
Soucek said he has a local bill in drafting now that will be similar to Jordan's bill.
He said he understands the concerns of tourism and camping industries and admits that those groups may be harmed significantly by allowing earlier school start dates.
"There is a good case on both sides, but I still fall on the side of school flexibility," Soucek said.
He said he wasn't sure how his bill would be received but would watch how the debate plays out in the House.
"I think it will definitely be an uphill battle," Soucek said.
Local school systems are seeing firsthand this year the combination of a tough winter with a late August start date.
Ashe County Schools has missed 13 school days so far this year due to winter weather, while Watauga County Schools has missed 15 days.
Watauga County students have completed only two complete, five-day weeks of school since returning from winter break.
As a result, the schools have revised the calendar several times, have come close to holding Saturday school and have considered slashing spring break.
"The light winter we had last year, we are more than making up for this year," Watauga County Schools Superintendent David Kafitz said at the most recent board of education meeting. "But that's a good thing, because calendar legislation is in play."