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'A law is a law, but flexibility is flexibility' | NC lawmaker reacts to school boards defying state law

This year at least three districts broke the law and so far, it doesn’t appear there will be any consequences from the state.

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Hundreds of thousands of students across our area returned to the classroom this week. School started later than usual for most this year, it’s all thanks to a North Carolina law state law forcing schools to start the Monday after the 26th.

RELATED: CMS says NC state law is reason behind late start to school year

But this year at least three districts broke the law and so far, it doesn’t appear there will be any consequences from the state. 

This could leave the door open for other districts to do the same. 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh let it be known the district may move forward with a plan to start early next year. 

"The intent at this point, it will take the board, full board a collective group to give me the direction and the staff to set up our calendar for the next school year 2023-2024 to align with just what you described with the three other districts has gone on ahead and started school earlier," Hattabaugh said at a press conference Friday. 

Hattabaugh was responding to a question asking if CMS had any plans to start school early like Gaston, Cleveland and Rutherford counties which started schools early on Aug. 17 as opposed to Aug. 29. 

If the board decided to start early it would be in defiance of state law. 

In a statement, CMS policy administrator Charles Jeter said the board has not made any decision regarding next year’s calendar. 

“It is a longstanding position of the Board that the school calendar law should be modified to allow traditional public schools to have the same flexibility that charters and privates have," Jeter said. "This has been a part of our legislative agenda for over a decade."

WCNC Charlotte reached out to three CMS board members for interviews on the subject. Two declined to comment on the matter at this time and we didn't receive a response from another. 

CMS Board members have previously spoken to WCNC Charlotte about why they would like to ideally start earlier in the year. One reason is to start classes with local colleges because some schools offer dual enrollment and share campuses with them. 

The district has middle college high schools. Middle college high schools, according to CMS, are types of magnet program that consists of grades 11-13. Students have the opportunity to earn college credit during their junior and senior years as well as one additional year. Students can earn an Associates Degree or two years of transfer college credits.

"Our community college partners start mid-August, just like most colleges and charter schools start, and they do so they can take their exams before winter break," CMS board member Margaret Marshall said to WCNC Charlotte in July

CMS also has college programs with UNC Charlotte that it would like to align calendars with. 

The district's other arguments? An earlier start date would allow students to take exams before winter break. 

"You go to Christmas break, you're not studying for a couple of weeks, and then you come back and you've forgotten everything and then you take your finals," CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew said in a 2021 interview with WCNC Charlotte. 

But what do lawmakers think about districts openly hinting or outright defying state law? 

WCNC Charlotte spoke with State Senator Joyce Waddell, a Democrat who represents Mecklenburg County and sits on the senate's education committee.

"A law is a law and the law, but flexibility is also flexibility," Waddell said.  "And so sometimes, if you're defying a law that's written, if there are consequences, consequences may not be as such, that it prevents you from being effective in what you do."  

Waddell says lawmakers painted too broad a brush when making the school calendar law. 

"The school district is different," Waddell said. "The population is different, the students are different, the community is different. And we should do what works for that particular community."

School districts that are defying the state calendar law hit home for many lawmakers. 

RELATED: Gaston County Schools start earlier, are they following the law?

Gaston and Cleveland County Schools, who each started the year early, are the districts of House Education Committee Chair John Torbett and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

WCNC Charlotte asked for comment from both lawmakers and has yet to hear back.

WCNC Charlotte reached out to Governor Roy Cooper's office for comment on the North Carolina School Calendar Law and asked for a response regarding schools that have or are planning to start schools earlier than state law allows. We did not receive a response to the questions asked. 

WCNC Charlotte was instead told to contact the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The department has been clear on its stance on school board's defying the law. 

"The state board does not have a written policy for what steps to take if any local agency does not comply with calendar laws," Allison Schafer, the general counsel for the NCDPI told WCNC in August. "The repercussions for failing to follow the law can go beyond any possible actions by the State Board of Education or Department of Public Instruction. For example, impacted individuals or groups can bring lawsuits against a local board to require the board to comply with the law and/or seek damages."

Waddell said the school calendar law has been discussed in education committees for years. 

"I've heard a lot of calls from people, we continue to hear from people," Waddell said. "And of course, our constituents, we will champion their calls, we'll bring that to the General Assembly."

WCNC Charlotte reached out to the following state lawmakers for comment on this story and did not hear back:

  • N.C. House K-12 Committee 
    • State Representative Hugh Blackwell (R), Chair 
    • State Representatives John Torbett (R), Chair 
  • N.C. Senate Education/ Higher Education Committee 

WCNC also did not hear back from Senate President Phil Berger or House Speaker Tim Moore (R). 

Contact Shamarria Morrison at smorrison@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.  

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