By Kristin Fox
The issue of who controls the school calendar is once again a point of discussion among Swain County school and county officials. With school officials looking toward next fall, Swain County School System Superintendent Mark Sale attended the recent board meeting of the Swain County Commissioners to discuss regaining local control of the school calendar for the Swain County School System.
With a unanimous vote, Swain County Commissioners voiced their support of the school system and passed a resolution requesting the state give local governing boards control of the public school calendar.
The resolution requests that “the North Carolina General Statutes give local boards control of local school systems and the North Carolina law provides the Swain County Board of Education powers of supervision and control of the public schools located within Swain County.” The resolution further states that “local control over establishing school calendars is an integral component of school system supervision and administrative powers with which local boards of education have been vested.”
In addition to the local board, the school system has the support of State Representative Mike Clampitt and State Senator Kevin Corbin. Clampitt and Corbin are both speaking up for Swain as well as Jackson and other surrounding counties in support of giving local control of school calendars back to local governing boards. School officials are hoping this year the state will make the legislation change necessary to give control of school calendars back to the counties.
For the last eleven years, the state has controlled the perimeters of public schools’ start and end dates. Currently, state legislation dictates that North Carolina public schools start after August 26 and end no later than June 11.
In 2004, the North Carolina General Assembly set a statewide one-size-fits-all mandate on how school calendars are to be set for public schools. This mandate only applies to public schools as neither charter schools nor private schools are required to follow the school calendar law.
The North Carolina General Assembly amended the school calendar law in 2012 to further restrict the starting date for schools to no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and the end date is no later than the Friday closest to June 11.
Since 2012, one ongoing issue the school system has had to deal with is making the calendar work so that students can take end-of-semester tests prior to the Christmas break.
“We have been able to get our testing in before Christmas whenever August 26 was closer to Wednesday, because we have to start on the Monday closest to the 26,” said Sale. “The beautiful thing about living in the mountains has been we had a weather waiver that allowed us to start one week early; that is how we have been able to get testing done before the Christmas break.
“However what’s happened in the last year or so is that as August 26 has moved past Wednesday and it forces us to start the next Monday, and because of that this year for the first time in a while, we had to have our end of semester testing actually in January,” he added. “This year we have been able to construct a calendar so that even with those regulations we can get our testing in before Christmas but what it has effectively done is shortened our fall semester to 80 days and our second semester to 90 days. If we could just shift one week, then we could equalize the semesters out which would be better for our students.”
“My real fear is with the weather patterns that we’re seeing right now, we’re going to lose that weather waiver and that’s going to push us even further forward to the point where we may not be able to start until right at the end of August, and our schools will have to go into the middle of June,” said Sale. “This would throw testing into the end of January and that can be a real problem for our students.”
The resolution gave multiple reasons why control of the school calendar should be given back to local school board:
- Fall sports and band begin in early August and schedules for extracurriculars have not changed to coincide with the State-mandated school calendar; and
- The State mandated late August start date means high schools do not complete the first semester until mid to late January; and
- The current law essentially requires Swain County High School students to take first semester exams after the winter break, which negatively impacts test scores, and according to recent Swain County High School student surveys is not encouraging to their performance; and
- The second semester for high schools starts two to three weeks later than community colleges and universities; and
- North Carolina superintendents report that the calendar misalignment makes it nearly impossible for high school students or recent winter graduates to take courses at a nearby community college or university during the second semester; and
- Recent survey of Swain County High School staff concurs with the desire to hold testing before winter break and align with the community college calendar; and
- Exams for Advanced Placement exams given on the same day nationwide, and the current calendar law shortens the amount of time Swain County students have to learn the material before the exam; and
- With little flexibility built into the calendar, scheduling make-up days is extremely challenging; and
- With little flexibility built into the calendar, scheduling workdays and professional development during the school year for faculty and staff is almost impossible during the Fall semester and remains challenging in the Spring semester, despite the significant increase in areas which faculty and staff are required by law to receive training (e.g., LETRS).
The resolution states that local boards of education are best equipped to understand the balancing act of meeting the community’s needs and maximizing student success. School and county officials believe that restoring local control of school calendars will allow the Swain County Board of Education to best meet the calendar preferences of the families, educators, and businesses in Swain County while allowing for innovative experimental approaches to improve student achievement.
On December 12, 2022, the North Carolina House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future issued its finding that the current school calendar law is not best suited to the needs of students and educators and that local boards of education should be given greater calendar flexibility; the Select Committee recommended the “General Assembly take action and change the school calendar law.”
The same resolution passed by the county commissioners supporting calendar flexibility and local control of the calendar was passed by the Swain County Board of Education in February 2023.