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News Education Sorry, kids. School starts next week!

State judge denies request of petitioners to scrap Macon County’s alternative calendar

Though some kids may be disappointed to hear it, public school in Macon County will start next week as planned. A state judge has denied the request for a preliminary injunction which would have scrapped plans to begin classes in the county on Aug. 4.

On Tuesday, State Administrative Law Judge Joe L. Webster denied the request of the petitioners to delay the start of school until Aug. 25, the statewide legal start date required of all schools in the state without a special waiver.

In April, the State Board of Education approved an educational purposes waiver for nearly every school in the district, allowing them to begin classes three weeks earlier than allowed by state law. The alternative calendars requested by the district incorporate three week-long periods of remedial education throughout the year. In addition, the calendar allows the schools to end their first semester before the Christmas break.

A 2004 law mandates a standard, statewide calendar requiring public schools to start classes no earlier than Aug. 25 and end no later than June 10. On June 6, a Highlands parent and Save Our Summers-N.C. (SOS-NC), a group representing the interests of parents, educators and others committed to preserving the calendar law, filed a petition challenging the State Board’s decision and calling for an injunction to prevent the district from executing its calendars in the coming school year.

While the state has granted numerous educational purpose waivers to individual schools since the calendar law went into effect, the lawyers for the petitioners claimed that the district was in fact requesting a county-wide waiver which they say is illegal according to general statute. The one school in the district which did not request a waiver, Macon Early College, an alternative school based on the campus of Southwestern Community College, is already exempt from the state mandated starting and ending dates.

SOS-NC president, Louise Lee, says that her organization and Sabrina Hawkins, the parent of three Highlands School students, filed the petition because the State Board of Education was “clearly breaking a law.” She noted that the district submitted 10 identical waiver requests. On July 8, the State Board filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was denied, and a hearing on the case was subsequently set for October.

On July 18, however, the petitioners returned with a request for a preliminary injunction to force the district to abandon its scheduled Aug. 4 start date. At that point, deciding to defend its interests in the case, the Macon County School Board authorized its attorneys to join with the State Board in opposing any effort to alter the start date.

In a resolution to the effect, the County Board claimed that changing the calendar at such a late date “would create an extreme hardship for the families of Macon County and would create substantial logistical problems for employees.”

On Monday, Judge Webster heard testimony from both sides of the case with regards to the injunction. District attorney John Henning Jr., and Asheville school law attorney Chris Campbell represented the county schools at the hearing, which was also attended by superintendent Dan Brigman and school board member Jim Breedlove.

Contacted after the release of the order denying the injunction, Lee said that her organization will continue to pursue the case and seek a summary judgement at a later date. “We’re disappointed that the judge denied a preliminary injunction,” she said, “but we believe that it is still very clear that there’s been a violation of the law which can be shown at a hearing on the merits of the case. We remain committed to having the state enforce its laws and not have school districts evade them.”

Lee said that even though SOS-NC may not be able to stop the district from starting school early this year, it intends to demonstrate that the State Board broke the law in approving the waiver. In addition, now that the district has joined the case, lawyers for SOS-NC may now ask more questions about the district’s rationale for shifting the calendar as opposed to simply focusing on the State Board’s decision, Lee said.

Lee also takes issue with the assertion that the petitioners in the suit have unduly burdened the district. “After giving the State BOE and Macon County every opportunity in the book to right this wrong, we finally had no choice but to simply ask the court for a hearing date,” she said in an email correspondence. “This is not some surprise tactic - everyone knew from day one that if justice was not served voluntarily, it would come to this.”

The school district insists that each school in the county is developing a unique program to take advantage of the remedial intercession periods and that coordinating the individual school calendars was simply a necessity of a small rural district, they also do not deny that the county views ending the first semester before the Christmas break as a big academic benefit.

Moreover, since passage of the calendar law, many school districts, particularly in the western mountain region, as well as statewide organizations such as the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) have come out in support of returning calendars to local control. For several years, regaining local control has been an explicit goal of the Macon County Board of Education, citing in particular the challenges of severe weather, especially after the past two winters of record snow fall.

Macon County has never quite qualified for a weather-related waiver. On the other hand, many neighboring districts have received such waivers this year, including Jackson County, Transylvania County, Haywood County, Henderson County, Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, a release from Brigman’s office read: “We are pleased with the decision which will allow our schools to provide students with much needed remediation and enrichment opportunities during the school year. At this point, we will focus all of our time on getting school started and will have no further comment on the court case.”

Barring another motion by SOS-NC lawyers, a hearing on the merits of the case will be held on the week of October 21. In the meantime, Macon County teachers will return to work on Monday, Aug. 1. Classes begin on Thursday.


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