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School calendar changes prompts lawsuit against Union County Public Schools

According to the lawsuit, UCPS is starting school three weeks before NC law allows it.

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — The chosen start date for the 2023-24 school year in Union County has prompted civil action against the school district.

Two parents and Honeysuckle Riding Academy, a horse riding lessons and camp business, filed the lawsuit in Union County. According to a complaint, the Union County Board of Education (UCBOE) set the start date for the 2023-24 school year as Aug. 9, 2023, which the plaintiffs say is three weeks before NC law allows.

"The complaint asks for a judge to rule that the school calendar that was recently adopted violates school calendar law and asked for them to declare that it's invalid and not enforceable," Mitch Armbruster, a partner at Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan in Raleigh, who's representing the plaintiffs said. 

On Dec. 13, 2022, the UCBOE met to discuss and vote on making changes to the 2023-24 academic calendar. In the end, school leaders unanimously voted to start the coming school year earlier.

Under the new calendar, Union County students will return to the classroom on Aug. 9, 2023. Exams will also be taken prior to winter break. The school year will end on May 22, 2024.

This decision came after a vote was taken by Union County Public Schools (UCPS) in late 2022 to ask parents for input on their calendar preferences. According to the lawsuit, both options offered by UCPS set the start date as Aug. 28.

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Regardless, the board met on Dec. 6, 2022, and proposed starting school on Aug. 9, acknowledging that it was against state law but noting that other districts had made similar moves.

School districts have argued earlier start dates are needed to allow students to take exams before Winter break and the school can align their calendars with local community colleges. 

But tourism and travel advocates argue that allowing districts to start school earlier than state law will dramatically disrupt the states' billion-dollar tourism industry. 

One of the parents in the complaint owns Honeysuckle Riding Academy. 

"She does many summer camps and the shortening of the summer and the lack of notice of the change to the calendar is causing her businesses severe financial hardship," Armbruster said. "Because basically normally she would have classes the first few weeks of August, and now that's all out with classes starting Aug. 9."

Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate, has not changed his previous stance on the school calendar law. 

"[The schools] acknowledge that the law exists and they're going to do what they want to anyway, the appropriate way to change that would be for the legislature to pass a law modifying the calendar law," Berger said. "There is not the support in the General Assembly to make that change."

The lawsuit calls on potential misdemeanors and possible removals from office if the board members do not comply with the state laws.

"I understood that some litigation was being contemplated,"  said. "I think it's a fairly clear case that those efforts on the part of some local school systems should be enjoined by the courts. We'll see what the judges do." 

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Despite repeated efforts to change the school calendar law the state senate has rejected the idea and has not gained enough votes in the chamber to pass the measure. 

The state house on the other hand has tried multiple times to change the school calendar law with the support of the NC House Speaker Tim Moore. 

"I favor more flexibility for the local districts and for the parents to have input in that," Moore said. "So not sure what will happen with the lawsuit. But I think there ought to be greater flexibility."

Moore said he understands why the law was put in place but thinks it goes too far and doesn't give school districts and parents enough input. 

Armbruster did not have a timeline for a potential court date on this matter as UCPS has not legally responded to the lawsuit yet.

"You can't have school districts just picking and choosing which sections of the education law they want to follow," Armbruster said. 

When WCNC Charlotte reached out to UCPS for a response about the lawsuit, the district declined to comment. WCNC did not hear back from individual board members listed in the suit when asked for comment. 

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate was in favor of calendar flexibility. 

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

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