Last week, the Macon County News reported on a petition filed by a Highlands parent and an organization called Save Our Summers North Carolina that challenges the legality of the alternative 2011-2012 calendar for Macon County Schools recently approved by the State Board of Education. In it’s lede, the story referred to the organization involved in the petition as “a tourism and business lobby group.”
“We are not a tourism and business lobby group – at all,” says Louise Lee, one of the original founders of the non-profit SOS-NC and its sole registered lobbyist.
According to Lee, a mother and former teacher of 14 years for Wake County Public Schools, SOS-NC is a volunteer coalition of parents, grandparents, education professionals and others who seek to establish, protect and maintain a more traditional school calendar for elementary and secondary schools throughout the state.
The objective of the group, according to its website, “is to preserve the summer months for outside-the-classroom childhood and family learning experiences and for valuable ‘real-life’ opportunities.”
Lee acknowledges that before a 2004 law was passed that mandates starting and ending dates for school calendars statewide, tourism interests had been involved in promoting similar laws. Then in 2004, Lee and a group of volunteers made up of parents, teachers and other citizens began circulating a petition.
“We told the tourism industry, ‘Back off. Let the parents try this,’” she said. According to Lee, the group collected more than 20,000 signatures in support of a law that would keep school districts from starting classes before August 25. The law passed.
Since its passage, 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.
Since passage of the law, the SOS-NC has had to fight every year keep the law on the books, says Lee. She noted that while the NCAE now lobbies against the law, an early poll of its members found that nearly 60 percent were in support of it.
She also acknowledges that SOS-NC and the coastal tourism industry, which sought to keep summers free for student labor, share some common goals. “They may have some of the same interests that we do. I won't deny that,” she said. “The economic issue is definitely a part of it, but for us it is more about other things.”
Asked if she felt that a statewide calendar could be challenging, especially for regions that are so different in terms of climate and geography, Lee said she does. “I’ll be the first to admit, the law is not perfect,” she said. “My heart goes out to these counties.”
Lee noted that she is very concerned about the recently passed legislation that mandates a school year of 185 days instead of 180. “These mountain counties already have it tough. They struggle to fit in the days, and now your taking away the five teacher work days.”