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Ashe County Schools face continued calendar woes

Originally published: Jan. 30
Last modified: Jan. 30

Adam Orr

Faced with temperatures hovering near zero Friday morning that left at least 12 buses inoperable due to the conditions, Superintendent of Ashe County Schools Todd Holden said he got lucky.

“I had to call school today over the buses, because the fuel was freezing in the lines,” Holden said Friday afternoon. “But we did attempt to bring the kids in before we realized the problems we were having, so that saved us.”

If the buses roll, Holden said, school districts are allowed to count that day as one of the state mandated 180-days of instruction students must receive each school year.

But it was a hollow victory, according to Holden.

“Technically it counted, but we still lost a valuable day of instructional time, and when you have to cover as much as our students and teachers do, each day is extremely valuable,” Holden said.

Friday’s bus meltdown illustrates the difficulties Holden said he has faced in his first winter as superintendent.

“We’ve missed seven days this year already,” Holden said. “It’s obviously been snow and ice on the roads, mainly in the northern end of the county, but then there are days like today when the roads are good and the temperature gets you.”

Ashe also fared better the week of Jan. 20-24, Holden said, compared to neighboring counties.

“We got in two days this week,” Holden said. “Watauga County and Avery County didn’t get any days in. That just goes to show how hard these western counties can get hit.”

Holden said another factor also pressures his decision making — in 2004, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that mandates when each school district across the state must start, and end, the school year.

SL 2004-180 requires schools to open for students no earlier than Aug. 25 and end no later than June 10.

A “good cause” waiver can be granted to districts that have missed eight or more days due to inclement weather in four of the past 10 years. The waiver allows districts to start earlier and end later than the state mandated dates.

Between 1994-2004, for instance, Ashe County Schools missed an average of 13.8 days each school year due to inclement weather, and missed as many as 22 days in 1995/96.

The waiver allowed Ashe to start school on Aug. 20 this year, and end no later than June 13, Holden said.

But the waiver still doesn’t grant the district enough flexibility, Holden argued, and forces students to take first semester exams after the Christmas holiday.

“If we had our way, we’d start Aug. 5-6, somewhere in there,” Holden said. “That would allow us to get our 90 days in before Christmas and our testing out of the way.”

Holden said this was the first year Ashe students would take exams following the break, and said he worried about performance issues.

“The fact that exams must be taken the last five days of the semester — those five days come after the holidays — gives us no flexibility in that regard,” Holden said. “Our students had just two days to review after they came back, and that’s just not enough. We need to restore our local control.”

But not everyone feels that way, according to Louise Lee, the founder of Save Our Summers, a grassroots organization that was instrumental in the fight to pass the school calendar law.

“Local control is how it should have stayed,” Lee said in a Jan. 24 interview. “The last thing we wanted to do was take away that local control, but we felt like it was being abused.”

Lee, a former teacher, said SOS gained support in large part because parents and teachers across the state had asked their local boards of education for years to move the start of school back later in August.

“Parents came to me and said, almost without exception, that they had gone to their local school boards year after year, begged and pleaded, and really couldn’t get a response,” Lee said. “In some instances, they were pretty much laughed at.”

By 2003, the self-described “carpool mom,” said she had heard enough complaints and decided to take action.

“I made some phone calls and said let’s let the grassroots have a go with this,” Lee said. “One thing lead to another and I found myself going downtown and talking to legislators.”

After what Lee called a, “groundswell of support,” the school calendar law was passed in the GA’s short session in 2004.

The uniform start date allows families to protect their summers with their children, Lee said, and “makes a big difference to hundreds of thousands of families across the state.”

The law also protects summer employment for both teachers and students, Lee said, and summer camps and scholarship opportunities.

“There were so many students who were getting scholarships to camps and music programs that were being cut out of those opportunities,” Lee said. “Many were in late July and August. It was hurting those students in a major way that I couldn’t see until I got involved.”

When asked if the law provided adequate safeguards and flexibility for schools in the mountainous western part of the state, Lee said she believed it did.

“Of course it’s not ideal,” Lee said. “But I was realistic in trying to work with counties.”

Changes made to the calendar law in 2012 that require calendars to cover 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction also offer even greater flexibility for districts like Ashe that face numerous makeup days, Lee said.

Lee said she remains active with SOS, and that she continues to hear accusations about her group’s motivations.

“That I was a ‘pawn of tourism.’ I’ve heard that one a lot,” Lee laughed. “But our focus has forever been on the families and the teachers. There has been a lot of people trying to make it into something it wasn’t, but at the time it was a beautiful thing.”

Lee also said she wouldn’t automatically oppose a bill that returns some local control to set calendar start dates to school districts, but said, “That would depend on the individual bill, and we would have to guard against returning to the situation where we were before.”

Bills seeking to return local control have been introduced in recent years in the statehouse, including six in 2013 alone, and N.C. State Rep. Jonathan Jordan and N.C. State Sen. Dan Soucek said they each support returning that power to Ashe County.

North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson could not be reached directly for comment, but North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Director of Communications and Information Services Vanessa Jeter said Atkinson does support the return of local control to all school districts.

“Any change would obviously have to be legislative, but I would tell you that she is in favor of allowing local district to set their own start times,” Jeter said.

On Jan. 25, Soucek said a return of local control over school calendars is a “common sense,” issue, especially in mountain counties.

“There are three main opposition camps,” Soucek said. “One is summer businesses, mainly on the coast. There is also the summer camping industry, our state’s is one of the largest in the southeast, and parents.”

Soucek said opposition groups such as SOS make valid points in their support of a unified start date, especially because businesses and camps that rely on long, uninterrupted summers would go out of business with a significant change in the calendar.

“Overall, though, many more would be able to change their business model and keep going,” Soucek said, who served on a summer camp board in Buncombe County before his election to the Senate in 2010. “The upside is that it would do far more good than damage on the downside.”

Still, Soucek said he is not optimistic that any action will be taken on the calendar issue in the near term.

“It’ll be very difficult because there are some very influential senators that would be greatly affected by the downside,” Soucek said. “It’s a battle, and I don’t think it’s dead, but it’ll take time and may be too controversial, especially in the upcoming short session.”

For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.