As leaders of North Carolina’s largest school system, Wake County school leaders hope this year to convince state legislators to let them operate their own charter schools and set their own school calendars.
Wake school leaders say they want to operate schools with the same flexibility afforded to charter schools to offer students more innovative programming. School leaders say they also want to choose when to begin and end the school year to provide more educational benefits, particularly for high-school students.
Instead of statewide legislation, school board members agreed last week to ask the Wake County delegation of the General Assembly to file a pair of local bills – legislation that affects fewer than 15 counties. The Democratic-led school board would have to win support from the Republican-dominated state legislature.
“As the largest district – we toss that around quite a bit – but anytime that we’re part of a bill, folks generally look at it because there are obvious statewide implications,” said Wake school board member Keith Sutton.
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Local bills can be easier to pass because they don’t affect the entire state. They also don’t require the governor’s approval.
Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican and the House’s No. 2 leader, said legislators will examine school-calendar and school-flexibility issues this year, although not necessarily in the ways Wake wants.
Both Wake County requests focus on flexibility.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. They’re also independent of local school districts.
Superintendent Jim Merrill said letting Wake open schools that have charter-like flexibility would give the district opportunities in areas such as funding and certification of school staff. Charter schools aren’t required to have as many certified teachers as traditional public schools.
“Just give us a level playing field and let us play the same game,” agreed school board member Bill Fletcher.
School board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said having that kind of charter-school flexibility would help with areas such as offering new types of magnet schools. But he said the district should try to avoid the situations which have resulted in a lack of student diversity in many Wake charter schools.
“There are some charter schools that are high percentage of African-American students,” he said. “There’s a large number that are a high percentage of Caucasian students, and ... I would like to think as public schools that we don’t set up a system where we move in that direction.
“But on the other hand, we want to be able to provide flexibility of new magnet ideas to do some different things than what traditional schools have done.”
Stam said that lawmakers are looking at ways to give school districts additional flexibility in managing their money and operating schools. But he acknowledged that the possible changes are not as extensive as having charter-school flexibility.
Wake might be closer to getting what it wants on school-calendar flexibility.
Stam said that legislators have filed more than a dozen local bills this year to give individual districts flexibility on when to start and end the school year. They will be consolidated and studied by a task force led by Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican.
The state mandates that traditional-calendar schools must start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11.
The school calendar law passed in 2004 with the backing of the tourism industry, which has fought back efforts to repeal or weaken the legislation. Tourism officials point to studies showing starting school in late August produces as much as $1 billion each year in economic growth through increased tourism-related sales.
Wake school officials have said the calendar law has limited their ability to make up this February’s snow days.
Merrill told the school board there’s another problem looming in 2016 when the calendar law would prevent traditional-calendar schools from opening until Aug. 29.
“It’s very late,” he said. “We’re trying to build it now and there are no real workdays. We can’t make it fit.”
The other major concern for school board members is the way the law results in the fall semester’s ending in January. That means high school students don’t take their final exams until after winter break. Before the calendar law, Wake was starting as early as Aug. 11 so that the fall semester would end in December.
Benton, the board member, cited the way the January exam dates prevent high school students who graduate early from being able to enroll in the spring semester for community colleges and universities.
Fletcher, the board member, said high school students need calendar flexibility.
“It’s sound educationally, supports the coordination of programming with community colleges and the four-year schools,” he said. “It’s something we need to do for our kids.”
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