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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Outlaw School Board sets a poor example

What if a playground bully sent to the principal’s office responded in his defense that he should not be punished because he didn’t agree with the rule against pushing other kids.

Or a serial truant, hauled back to school by a parent, announced that she’d just prefer to do school her own way. Or a high school kid, facing in-school suspension for possessing contraband, protested that his actions were a form of civil disobedience.

Neither parents nor teachers nor principals nor administrators nor School Board members would countenance such behavior or accept the laughable defense uttered by juveniles. Check that. Maybe our School Board would, for it was the Henderson County School Board that voted last month to join three other school boards across the state in flouting state law that governs school calendars.

School Board members have their reasons and they’re understandable — chiefly to align with the community college calendar and enable high school seniors to graduate before Christmas and enroll in college in January.

Currently, state law requires schools to open the school year no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and close no later than the Friday closest to June 10.

When Superintendent Mark Garrett presented a draft calendar for 2023-24 in September that complied with the law — starting Aug. 28 and ending June 7 — the board pushed back. Although she told the board that nothing in state law provides a penalty or enforcement mechanism, School Board attorney Cynthia Lopez went on to warn members that the Legislature could add penalties or that a parent or other harmed party could sue the school system. Only Kathy Revis stood her ground in refusing to join the outlaw vote. She made the good point that working through the Legislature to return the decision to local boards is the right path; breaking the law is not.

There were good reasons for the change in the law in the first place. As school systems inched farther and farther toward July in starting school, the tourism and summer camp industries and others appealed for help. An alliance of legislators from the mountains and the beach — the regions most affected — enacted the school calendar law in 2004. Tom Apodaca — a freshman state senator from Hendersonville who would go on seven years later to chair the powerful Senate Rules Committee — was a primary sponsor of the bill, which passed with bipartisan support.

“I believe at the end of the day this legislation will be a win for education, a win for travel and tourism and most importantly, a win for our school children,” Democratic Gov. Mike Easley said when he signed the bill into law. “North Carolina is the sixth most visited state in the nation and this bill should help to bolster tourism, which is an important part of our economy.”

State Sen. Chuck Edwards, who succeeded Apodaca in the state Senate, sought to justify the School Board’s decision.

“While I cannot condone anyone breaking the law, I have a high degree of sympathy for the Henderson County School Board to make improvements to the school calendar,” Edwards told the Asheville Citizen-Times. “I can see why after their state government has repeatedly failed to listen to their needs, the school board is taking matters into their own hands.”

In the end, our School Board voted 6-1 to defy the law, shielded by the thin defense that nothing has happened — so far — to other counties that are flouting official state policy. It’s a poor example to set in front of the 13,000 school children the School Board members were elected to serve.