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Judge orders Carteret County Schools to change its calendar that defied state law

View of Morehead City in Carteret County, North Carolina.
James Willamor via Flickr
Creative Commons
View of Morehead City in Carteret County, North Carolina.

A North Carolina superior court judge has ruled one coastal school district’s proposed academic calendar for next school year is void, because it defies a state law governing traditional public school calendars.

Earlier this school year, the Carteret County school board voted to start school this coming fall on Aug. 13, nine days earlier than the law allows. The owners of two surf shops and a popular seafood restaurant in Carteret County sued the board for planning to defy the law.

Four of the plaintiffs who filed the complaint also have children who attend the school district, and say they rely on the law in “planning and running their business, and… in planning the year for their families as well.”

This week, Superior Court Judge William Wolfe ruled that the school board broke the law and he nullified their proposed calendar.

“We are extremely disappointed that a superior court judge has invalidated our school calendar for the 2024-2025 school year,” Carteret County’s board chair Kathryn Smith Chadwick said in a statement. “Our calendar is 100% what is best for students and their families.”

Owners of the businesses that brought a complaint against Carteret County Schools declined a request for an interview from WUNC last month. Their attorney, Mitch Armbruster, said they are pleased with the court’s ruling.

“All we asked for in this case was that the school district be required to follow the law, a law which the school board openly admitted they were violating,” Armbruster said. “We shouldn’t be teaching our children that it is OK to violate the law.”

School boards and summer tourism businesses have long been at odds over calendar law

The court ruling is the latest development in a decades-long dispute between North Carolina school boards and the state’s tourism industry over when the majority of the state’s public school students should begin and end their summer vacation.

State law has sided with the tourism industry since 2004. That year, the legislature passed a law requiring public school districts to start their school year no earlier than Aug. 25.

Advocates for the tourism industry say the law is good for summer business, because it allows families to travel and teenagers to work in tourism through most of August.

But many school boards argue the requirement is a detriment to students, because it means most schools end their first semester after winter break, and many students have to take final exams after returning from an extended break from school.

Current state law requires that traditional public schools start on the Monday closest to Aug. 26. The law does not apply to charter schools, year-round schools, early college high schools, or private schools receiving state-funded vouchers. School districts can also seek a waiver from the law.

Chadwick, the Carteret County’s board chair, argues the school calendar law is unconstitutional, because it interferes with the state’s constitutional requirement to provide equal educational opportunities to all students.

“With respect to the real benefits of school calendar flexibility, traditional public school students are not provided equal protection or equal opportunities with other schools, and this is wrong,” Chadwick said.

Carteret County is not alone in violating law

Carteret County Schools was one of 29 school districts that planned to defy the law this coming fall – based on an analysis by WFAE of statewide data released at a state board of education meeting this week. So far this year, it is the only school district apparently facing repercussions for the refusal.

In 2023, parents brought a lawsuit against Union County Schools for adopting a calendar that would start school three weeks earlier than permitted by law. In response, that school board rescinded its calendar.

In the case against Carteret County Schools, the judge dismissed the business owners’ request for the school district to pay their attorney’s fees, but required the district to cover court fees.

The Carteret County board of education plans to meet “as soon as is practical” to consider an appeal. The board also plans to consider adopting a new calendar that complies with the judge’s order.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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