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It's the 'Good Book’ versus Raleigh politics in debate over school calendar vote

Commissioner Michael Edney holds a Bible to make a point during the board's debate over the county School Board's calendar vote. Commissioner Michael Edney holds a Bible to make a point during the board's debate over the county School Board's calendar vote.

Henderson County commissioners lobbed “the Good Book,” an “ego fight” and “politics played in Raleigh” as verbal salvos in a lively and at times rancorous debate over Michael Edney’s push to punish the School Board for voting to start school earlier than state law allows.

When the smoke cleared, commissioners had voted 4-1 against Edney’s motion to pull $1.9 million in county funding from the school system, leading the maker of the motion to declare that “we’re no longer a society of laws” and — in a zinger sure to rankle his fellow conservatives — “we’re no better than Asheville.”
During a special called meeting on Wednesday morning commissioners resumed their discussion that began when the board adopted the new 2023-34 budget on June 5. That's when Edney first suggested that commissioners should punish the School Board for its 4-3 vote in February to start the school year on Aug. 14, two weeks earlier than state law allows. School Board members cited completing the fall semester before Christmas and aligning K-12 schools with community colleges and universities as reasons for the decision.

“Let me start by saying this is not about the children, we’re not going to shield ourselves with children,” the veteran commissioner, who is also an attorney, said as he kicked off the 25-minute discussion. “This isn’t really about a start date. It’s not about us telling anybody what to do, how to do it, where to do it. It’s about the Good Book, and when you put your hand on the Good Book, and you promise to our Lord that you’re going to follow the law, are you accountable to do that or not?

"Obviously you’re accountable to him. Are you accountable to the rule of law and are you accountable to follow the rule? I think the superintendent even has to take an oath. Are you accountable to make him violate his oath?”
The School Board’s most recent audit contained a statement confirming that the School Board “is in compliance (with the law) as far as all the grants and whatnot they get,” he noted. “So that begs the question, if they go through with this illegal activity, can that statement remain in the audit? Does that open up the school system and ultimately the taxpayers to repay millions and millions of dollars of federal money, state money if they are not in compliance, and would that fall back on us because we’re the only people who have the ability to levy that money?”
Called upon by Commissioner David Hill to weigh in, County Attorney Russ Burrell said he could not predict what consequences if any the School Board or the county might see. So far, counties that have defied the calendar law have received no sanctions.

“You will be on your own to predict whether or not the attorney general of North Carolina will try to enforce it,” Burrell said.
Commissioners then summoned schools Superintendent Mark Garrett to the lectern.
“This is not the first year where this has happened,” Garrett said of local school boards flouting the law. “It has happened at least two previous years, in some districts. It is my understanding that there are about 15 of the 115 districts planning to start before that mandated date for ‘23-24.” So far, “there has been nothing from Raleigh” in terms of enforcement.
When Lapsley described the late August start as a “recommendation,” Edney corrected him. “It’s a state law that says you shall not start before a certain date. ‘Shall’ means ‘shall.’ It doesn’t mean recommendation.”
When Burrell described the impasse as a “disconnect” between the Legislature and the state Department of Public Instruction, Edney interjected that the disconnect was between the Legislature “and what liberal rogue school boards have said.”
Rebecca McCall, the chair of the Board of Commissioners, declared that she had “lost sleep” considering the issue.
“Let’s just call it what it is. The head of the senate was one of the senators that originally adopted the law in the first place and asked that it be adopted along with representatives from Henderson County in order to provide labor for the camps and restaurants and all of the businesses that cater to the tourists after the college students went back to school," she said. "They would have the high school students available to do those jobs.” (State Sen. Tom Apodaca was among the sponsors of the calendar law when the Legislature adopted it in 2004.)
“This is something that the School Board has been trying to push through in Raleigh for years — not months, but years. They have tried to go through the right channels. They have continuously written their representatives or senators, everybody involved, to get this change, to no avail. Finally, the House took it up this this year, and it was going through and then it kind of stalled in March and hasn’t moved since then. But the Senate (blocked it), and I quote (Senate leader) Phil Berger, because I heard him say this in a meeting, he said that it’s not a priority for them right now.
“Why aren’t the school children of our state a priority for the senate right now? It is up to our senators and our representatives to clean up laws that don’t make sense. And yes, I believe that when I put my hand on that Bible that I’m swearing to God that I will uphold those laws.”
She then cited outdated laws on the books, including ones that make it illegal to swear in front of a dead body, hold bingo games longer than five hours or “plow your cotton field with an elephant."
“Our children are being held captive in an ego fight because somebody doesn’t want to make a change based on the fact that this was put in place in the first place for wrong reasons," she said. "If the School Board made this decision, then that’s on them and they have to suffer the consequences. But it’s not this board’s responsibility to enforce any punishment or requirement. We are not their big brother.”
Commissioner Daniel Andreotta said common sense would suggest that local school boards across the state should have flexibility, especially considering that the mountains might have many snow days and the coast none.
“The root cause here is what people hate about what’s supposed to be public service and that’s politics and it’s being played in Raleigh by a select few who have the power to please their select view,” he said. “It seems to me it would make sense that Raleigh would say, ‘Hey, here’s a two week window of starting and finishing: Geographical areas, do what you need to do.’”
“The same people that hired me hired the School Board and that’s the citizens,” he added. “And I have not had one citizen come up to me and say, ‘Hey, What are y’all gonna do about what School Board did?’ I think it’s our job on this topic to appropriate and fund education just like we fund EMS and the jail and everything else, and each and every department or body has their accountability to the citizens and or to some bigger government arm if need be.”
Edney made a motion to withhold $1.9 million from the School Board — $182,655 “for each day of school kids are required to be in school in violation of the state statute.”
When the motion failed 4-1, Edney moved “that we declare the first two weeks in August as an Amnesty Day that no one who in Henderson County has to follow any law they personally disagree with.” When no one, the mover included, voted for it, Edney explained that the motion was intended “just to prove a point — that we’re no longer a society of laws and that we’re no better than city of Asheville.”