Union County Public Schools’ meeting to discuss law-breaking 2023-24 calendar is canceled

The Union County school board canceled a special meeting Tuesday, where members were scheduled to discuss its 2023-24 law-breaking calendar, more than five minutes after the start time.

No explanation was given, and a message posted to the district’s Facebook read: “Tonight’s special called Union County Board of Education meeting is canceled.”

Later Tuesday evening, the meeting was rescheduled for 7:30 a.m. Friday.

Tahira Stalberte, of the district’s communications office, told The Charlotte Observer that board members had no comment.

Board members unanimously adopted a calendar in December that starts school earlier than what state law allows, drawing the ire of people who say intentionally breaking the law sets a poor example for students. The district’s calendar survey, which nearly 6,300 people responded to, also didn’t include the approved option.

Two people with children in the school system sued the district, wanting a court to stop officials from enforcing the calendar that begins school Aug. 9, even as the state law required districts to wait until late August.

Attorney Mitch Armbruster of Raleigh told the Observer on Monday the UCPS board has formally been served with the lawsuit. A hearing on the suit hasn’t been scheduled. Armbruster is with the Smith Anderson Law Firm.

FINAL VOTE: See how the Union County school board voted on its calendar proposal

What’s the law?

Union County, the sixth-largest district by student population, is the largest in the state to defy state law. The law, passed in 2004, says districts can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and must end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Even if a waiver is approved, the start date can’t be earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 19, according to state law.

UCPS’ 2023-24 calendar, as it stands, sets the last day of school for May 22, 2024.

The requirement is meant to protect the tourism industry, but it’s unpopular among many school districts. An earlier start would allow educators to give first-semester exams before winter break, proponents say. At the time of the vote in December, Superintendent Andrew Houlihan told board members he received positive feedback on the plan.

But the adoption of the calendar was an “intentional violation of the law,” the parents’ complaint alleges. Parents also complained that they were not told in advance of the early start option.

Jodi McConkey, a former UCPS teacher, says she believes the earlier calendar is beneficial for students and school board members are acting on students’ best interests. But the law is the law.

“We cannot show our students that we can pick and choose which laws to follow, no matter how bad that law is,” McConkey said. “Instead, our board should be loudly advocating to change the law. Speaking to legislators is a great start, but they could also educate the public as to the benefits of the earlier calendar, why the current calendar harms education, and what stakeholders can do to help get the earlier calendar back. But advocacy needs to be done legally.”

Other districts resist law

Districts are standing up against the state law, partly because it’s not clear whether there are ramifications. This year, three districts near Charlotte started early: Gaston, Cleveland and Rutherford counties. The Cabarrus County School Board this year unanimously approved an early start to the 2023-24 year.

Both the North Carolina Travel Industry Association and North Carolina Travel and Tourism Coalition support the calendar law.

Kara Weishaar, the executive director of the coalition, told the Observer her organization supports the lawsuit the parents filed in Union County that challenges “the illegal actions of the school board.”

“School leaders are sending a terrible message to the students they are charged with educating by openly and deliberately defying state law simply because they don’t agree with it,” said Weishaar, who also is the director of government relations and association management at Smith Anderson Law Firm.

Legislators from across North Carolina for years have tried to change the state law without success.