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Anybody pushing for legislation that gives local calendar flexibility to individual school districts would be forgiven for feeling disheartened by the current state of affairs. 

According to WRAL.com, Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson) has said that the many local calendar flexibility bills will not get a hearing in the Senate. In the House, bills on the subject have been stalled by Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), who said: “They’re not going anywhere, they’re in my pocket.” 

But a diverse coalition of organizations in favor of local calendar flexibility are not deterred. L.O.C.A.L., which stands for Let Our Calendar Authority be Local, is comprised of eight organizations, some of which often stand on opposite sides of political debates: the John Locke FoundationNorth Carolina FreedomWorksNorth Carolina Justice Center, NC Association of School AdministratorsProfessional Educators of North Carolina, the North Carolina Association of Educators, and the North Carolina PTA.  

Some members of the coalition met Tuesday at the offices of the North Carolina School Boards Association — also a member — to discuss strategy. 

North Carolina FreedomWorks Legislative Liaison Kathy Hartkopf says the diversity of the group is a powerful tool in the coalitions arsenal.

“A lot of legislators are really taking note of that, and I think that’s significant,” she said.

And she says the coalition is undeterred by news that local flexibility bills may not get a hearing. 

“It does not mean that we’re going away,” she said. “It does not mean that we’re ready to give up.” 

According to Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, 43 local bills, asking for calendar flexibility for 75 counties have been filed, along with four bills asking for statewide local control of calendar start and stop times. 

“I don’t think in my 20 years of doing this, I have ever seen an issue that had so many individual pieces of legislation filed,” she said. 

And the issue is one that unites Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate as well. In the House, legislation on the subject has been filed by Democrats like Rep. Cecil Brockman (Guilford), as well as Republicans such as Rep. Michele D. Presnell (Yancey). In the Senate, you have Democrat Sen. Gladys A. Robinson (Guilford) with one bill on the subject, as well as Republican Sen. Stan Bingham (Davidson). 

Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (Cabarrus) doesn’t have one specifically on the more general subject of local calendar flexibility, but he does have legislation seeking to allow local districts to align their calendars with community colleges, one of the issues often discussed in the debate over calendar flexibility. 

He says the way North Carolina conducts its school system today is old fashioned. 

“We still have a school calendar and delivery system that is equivalent to the — let’s put it this way — our delivery system is akin to the late 19th or early 20th century delivery model, utilizing an agrarian calendar,” he said. 

Complicating this debate is the fact the deadline for crossover, when bills typically need to have passed one house in the General Assembly, is April 30. Thus far, no local calendar flexibility bills have passed in the Senate or the House, and with prominent legislators saying the legislation won’t see any movement, it’s looking like there are only a few weeks left in this fight.

Not so, says Winner.

“We’ve all been doing this for a fairly long time,” she said. “Just because an issue doesn’t make it to crossover, there are other ways to get things done as well.”

The big roadblock in the debate is the state tourism industry. Tourism relies on the current calendar for the very profitable summer vacation season. In response to a request for comment from the North Carolina Travel & Tourism Coalition, I was referred to its 2015 legislative goals. On the subject of calendar flexibility, the goals state: 

“The Coalition supports the existing North Carolina law requiring schools to begin in late August – the traditional time for back-to-school. Studies show that starting school in late August produces as much as $1 billion each year in economic growth through increased tourism-related sales. A majority of states have late August start dates, with no discernable impact on student learning or test scores.”

To see more on the impact of the current calendar on educational outcomes as well as the reasons why advocates want local calendar flexibility, see my previous article on the subject. 

Winner said it’s essential that this issue be addressed this session. If movement doesn’t happen until the short session of the General Assembly, schools and families may not have time to plan appropriately for any changes in schedule. And if nothing changes, schools can start no earlier than August 29, 2016. 

“School has never started that late in this state in decades,” she said. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.