07/19/04 — Bill changing school year is approved

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Bill changing school year is approved

By Staff and Wire
Published in News on July 19, 2004 2:04 PM

Next summer's vacation will end later for most Wayne County students, thanks to legislation passed early Sunday morning by the N.C. General Assembly.

In one of the concluding acts of the 2004 session, the Legislature voted to require local school districts to begin classes no sooner than Aug. 25 each year and end by June 10. Gov. Mike Easley is expected to sign the bill into law this week.

The change will not affect Wayne County public schools' 2004-05 calendar. Students are still set to return to class Tuesday, Aug. 3.

The school system will begin discussing next year's schedule in October, with a decision by the Board of Education expected in January 2005, said spokeswoman Olivia Pierce.

The later start may complicate high school students' lives. Currently, block scheduling allows students to complete fall courses and take final exams before the winter holiday break. They start new courses when they return to school in January.

Starting school in late August could force exams to be held after the break. That would mean students would need to study over the break, and teachers would need to start classes in January with reviews.

"We feel like retention is better if we don't have that break," Mrs. Pierce said today.

The Legislature also eliminated five of the 20 designated teacher workdays. Wayne County has typically scattered its days throughout the year around grading periods.

The bill was one of the most debated in this year's session. Gov. Easley had threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill, which would have reduced the workdays by 10.

"I believe this is an historic moment," said Rep. Connie Wilson, R-Mecklenburg, the bill's primary sponsor. With the measure passed, "you're going to have a lot of happy parents, a lot of happy children" and a stronger economy, she said.

One of the final bills debated before adjournment turned out to be among the most contentious of the two-year session, pitting the N.C. Association of Educators -- the state's top teachers lobby -- against business, local school leaders, and even the state Board of Education.

The changes will begin with the 2005-06 school year and apply to schools with traditional-year schedules. School districts with many missed days due to weather could seek a waiver from the calendar restrictions. Some schools with alternative curricula also could receive an exemption.

Unhappy bill opponents complained that they were left out of the final negotiations in an attempt to make further improvements. Others said the measure always has been aimed at helping coastal businesses at the expense of student performance.

"This bill stinks, and I'm very sorry we're doing this as one of our final bills because it leaves a very sour taste in my mouth for the 2004 session," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.

Over the years, local districts have pushed their starting dates back into late July and early August, partly in the interest of class scheduling. They also contended that teachers preferred to teach during hot months at the start of the year rather than at the end.

Traditional vacation times have been reduced, leading to empty ocean cottages and summer teenage employees having to go back home, harming business revenues, according to supporters.

A bill last year to require school districts to begin after Labor Day got scuttled by local school boards asking to be exempted. A parents' group called Save Our Summers-North Carolina began pushing for the bill again.

This year, the House co-speakers and Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, backed a modified measure. The bill also gained steam when the N.C. Association of Educators endorsed a measure that also would reduce the number of workdays without a dip in teacher salaries.

The N.C. Association of School Administrators and N.C. School Boards Association fought hard against the bill, saying it will cost more than $200 million to implement, much of that in lost productivity.

They also said teachers, and ultimately students, would suffer from less preparation time, an argument bill supporters contended couldn't be proved.

The House and Senate initially agreed to similar bills last week. By Saturday, Katherine Joyce with the school administrators' group had conceded defeat but hoped for language that would be the least harmful for teachers and students.

The calendar bill proponents developed "a very well-organized campaign" using money from the tourism industry, Joyce said.