NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The fate of New Hanover County Schools 2022-2023 traditional school year calendar remains up in the air.
During a special meeting Friday, the school board voted to send the calendar, currently in process, back to the calendar committee. Instead of bringing back the members that recommended the calendar to the board last year, Hugh McManus, who entered the motion, suggested it be decided by the new members of the committee.
The motion was passed 4-2, Judy Justice and Stephanie Walker dissenting.
The calendar committee already met on Sept. 8 to discuss the 2023-2024 calendars; now they will be directed to review this year’s schedule by Sept. 30. A recommendation by then will allow the board to vote on revising this year’s schedule mid-semester at their next regular meeting on Oct. 4.
Several members of the community, along with board members, flagged concerns with the current semester not wrapping until after winter break. High school students would be the most affected, required to complete exams after a 12-day break. Dual-enrolled students at local colleges and Advanced Placement students would face scheduling incongruencies between their different institutions and classes.
The current calendar gives teachers more work days during the semester to use as catch-up days to complete non-student facing work. While ending the semester in December would benefit student learning retention, teachers would be left with virtually no break time.
If the calendar were to change on Oct. 4, the district would have already used one semester teacher workday. The remaining four workdays would need to be reevaluated. The Pre-K calendar, which is tied to the traditional year, would also need to be reviewed again.
However, removing workdays to add more instructional time is not that simple, as pointed out by Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison on Friday.
After the board voted to return the calendar to committee, Faison was responding to board questions when she explained workdays are used by elementary teachers to complete literacy training, called LETRS. Without those workdays, teachers would have to complete the required training on instructional days, meaning substitute teachers would be needed as stand-ins. Kraybill stated around 800 teachers would be participating in the training this fall.
According to Faison, $560,000 would be needed to pay substitutes to replace teachers in the classroom during training. Justice pointed out the state pays for that, but Faison clarified the money the state gave them is being used toward other literacy items, like school materials.
If the district needed to pay substitutes, that half-a-million would be 90% of the state-allotted literacy budget, leaving only 10% for other items the district intended to use the money for in this year’s budget.
In light of that information, Nelson Beaulieu called to reconsider the motion to return the matter to the calendar committee. His attempt failed 4-2, with Beaulieu and board chair Stephanie Kraybill in the minority.
The reconsideration of the calendar came after the board decided to hold a special session at its Sept. 7 meeting. Several board members reported hearing from calendar committee members that the school year in place does not fulfill the intentions of the group, despite unanimous approval of the current calendar on Nov. 10, 2021 after four meetings. The board also voted unanimously for approval on Dec. 7, 2021.
“We made a mistake. Everybody is saying we made a mistake,” Justice said during Friday’s meeting.
The decision to again ask for a committee recommendation was not easily reached by board members Friday. The board, with Stefanie Adams missing, was divided on whether to change the calendar at all.
“Switching over to a new calendar is not best business practice, and yes, the school system is a business,” Kraybill said.
A fresh committee could reach a different conclusion than last year’s membership. McManus, who attended the committee’s Sept. 8 meeting, pointed out this year’s cohort’s top two concerns are balancing the semesters and ending the first semester before winter break.
Committee demographics have also changed from last year. The previous chair, LaChawn Smith, retired and was replaced by Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison. During the Friday meeting, Faison said the committee now has more principals and teachers from high schools, as well as a parent representative from each high school. Middle and elementary schools are represented by an employee and parent from each grade level. Students are also invited to participate on the committee.
Walker questioned whether asking for another recommendation from the committee could be trusted. She pointed out at the calendar committee’s third meeting on Oct. 21, members were in support of having exams before winter break. She suggested something happened between that date and their next meeting three weeks later to change the recommended draft.
“I worry about the process and what’s going to get involved and who’s going to get involved to add pressure,” she said Friday.
Student involvement was another of her concerns, along with Justice. In a convoluted back-and-forth exchange with the district’s attorney, Colin Shive, the two members were attempting to bring members of the audience, including students, up to speak.
Because the board did not advertise the meeting as containing a public comment period, Shive pointed out that allowing individuals to share their opinions would violate open meetings law. Justice argued that an guidance counselor (she was corrected that the potential teacher was an AIG instructor) she wanted to bring forward was an expert and could provide information to the board, rather than an opinion, but the motion to allow the guest failed due to a tied vote.
Both Beaulieu and Kraybill suggested the board’s original calendar vote was taken with consideration of all students, not just high schoolers taking college or Advanced Placement courses. Beaulieu claimed the conversation to change the calendar brought up equity issues.
“Our 1%, top-level students are driving this conversation,” he said.
Kraybill pointed out, of the district’s student population of 25,000, 35% are in high school. Out of those, 32% are enrolled in AP courses and 1,400 were dual-enrolled in college classes.
Walker rejected the notion that the current calendar only negatively affects few students.
“If we’re keeping students in the forefront of what we do, then that’s what this board is for,” she said.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org