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Tourism, travel advocates say visitor spending is in jeopardy if changes happen to NC school calendar law

Advocates say one of the busiest times for visitors to come to NC is in August and if the legislature allows an earlier school start date, tourism will be impacted.

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Tourism in North Carolina generates billions of dollars in annual revenue.

According to Visit North Carolina, the state received about $28 billion in visitor spending in 2021 alone.  

This comes from things like people visiting the mountains to enjoying the summer in beach homes on the coast. Tourism and travel advocates say visitor spending is in jeopardy if changes happen to a North Carolina school calendar law. 

The state law, implemented in 2004, forces school districts to start school closest to the Monday of Aug. 26.

Advocates for the tourism and travel industry say one of the busiest times for visitors to come to North Carolina is in August and if the legislature changes the law to allow an earlier start date, tourism will be impacted negatively.

Nonetheless, district after district in the Charlotte area has decided it’s in the best interest of students to break a North Carolina law that forces them to start school in late August.

North Carolina lawmakers are taking notice.

"Every district is different," Sen. Rachel Hunt, NC State Senator-Elect, representing Mecklenburg County, said. "And if tourism is the main driver in a certain school district, then that school district should vote on a calendar, which allows students to work throughout the season that's best for what works in their area." 

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Hunt was a part of a House Select Committee on the future of education in North Carolina that recommended the general assembly change the state law. 

"Instead of consistently talking calendar over and over and over again, each and every legislative cycle, we need to actually answer some of the issues of our time and one of those incorrect, those issues," Rep. John Torbett said about changing the law. 

Torbett from Gaston County recently led the House Select Committee. 

Key tourism industries would be impacted by any changes to calendar law -- including the realty industry. 

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"Enacting the School Calendar Law has led the way for economic gains, as well as greater opportunities for family vacations, participation in camps, non-school education, and summer employment," NC Realtors, a state real estate group, said in a blog post supporting the calendar law. 

In response to the recommendations by the House Select Committee, the real estate group is still mulling it over. 

"We are aware of the recommendations from the North Carolina House Select Committee on Education System for North Carolina’s future.  Our membership has not yet had the chance to review the recommendations.  We will do so in the coming weeks and months as part of our legislative review process," Mark Zimmerman, the senior vice president of external affairs for NC Realtors, said in an email. 

But other travel and tourism groups like The North Carolina Travel and Tourism Coalition are calling out districts for the precedent they’re setting.

“Regardless of your position on the law, it is still the law.  Imagine if these same leaders decided they did not like state testing standards.  An oath of office is more than words,” Kara Weishaar, the group’s executive director said in a statement.

Credit: Shamarria Morrison

Tourism groups argue if kids went back to school too early in August, participation in summer camps would halt and summer employment would plummet, among other things.

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“If these school boards want to change this law or any law, they can request it from the legislature. However to brazenly break state law is wrong and teaches students, who are our future leaders, a detrimental lesson," Vince Chelena, the North Carolina Travel Industry Association’s executive director, said in a statement. 

Credit: Shamarria Morrison

Before any changes to the school calendar law can happen some key votes need to be secured in the House and Senate.

Perhaps the most important: Senate Leader Phil Berger. Berger has consistently opposed any changes to the school calendar law.

Berger's resistance to the law change came up at a school board meeting from Iredell Statesville Schools. 

In December, the board voted to start school earlier than state law allows, but many board members had hesitation and voted against the motion. 

"I just want to clarify that I personally support the early calendar schedule," Abby Trent, an ISS School Board Member said before the final vote. "However, the North Carolina law is very clear. And like Mr. Solomon said, we took an oath last week to follow the law. I can't knowingly vote for something that is against the law."

Nonetheless, the votes to change the school law are stronger in the House and have support from both Republicans and Democrats. 

"It's fine with me if the bill comes from Republicans, I am very much in favor of it," Hunt said. "We just need some help in our educational system here in North Carolina."

Hunt said her only goal is to give power back to districts when choosing start dates. 

"Those people know better than we do in Raleigh, what they need and what kind of calendar would work best for their businesses and for their students," Hunt said. 

Torbett agrees with changing the law but has a different idea of how to get that done.

"A lot of folks have that flexibility today within a certain period of time," Torbett said. "But it would be a change to counter law where we would say that the state says no school start on this date and the end of this day."

Union County recently became the largest district in North Carolina to defy state law by starting school almost three weeks before state law allows it in 2023. 

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

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