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Local schools to start Aug. 8

At its Monday meeting, the Haywood County Board of Education decreed the upcoming school year will start for students Aug. 8 "” though no one on the board or in the audience seemed happy about it.

In the words of Title 1 Director Fred Trantham, who presented the new date, "It's not a good situation."

As did many who addressed the issue that night, he stressed this change did not come about by choice but necessity. While unveiling the date change, Trantham made clear that this shift is fallout from conflicting state laws dealing with teachers' salaries. Eight years ago, it was decided at the state level that teachers had to receive a full check no later than Aug. 31 of any given year. As schools typically start mid-August around here, that meant teachers were being pre-paid for their work.

Last summer, however, the N.C. General Assembly decided to make pre-paying teachers illegal, but neglected to remove the other law requiring a full check by the end of the August. Though school administrators say they were told numerous times by legislators this problem would be addressed, it hasn't been. As lawmakers won't reconvene until May, Trantham and other school officials see no other option but to start teachers at the beginning of August and students shortly after.

Trantham presented this as the only way for teachers to get their legally required full pay by the end of August, while not breaking the recent law against pre-pay.

"We're sort of in an ugly situation, as far as what the state legislature has mandated," he told the board, "and we're trying to figure out a way to make the best of it."

He did note, however, that the summer would still be of normal length (63 days, the same as last year).

Trantham admitted that this change will likely disrupt some families' vacation plans, but stressed that Superintendent Anne Garrett will direct teachers to work with students who might have to miss the first few days of class. As a student isn't considered officially enrolled until his/her first day of class, these absences wouldn't be counted against them.

Though Trantham said this date change "throws a lot of kinks in a lot of plans," it was the only solution anyone at the meeting had to offer.

After some brief deliberation between board members, the Aug. 8 start date was approved, with only Steven Kirkpatrick voting against it. He brought up that not every school district in the surrounding area is going to this new calendar, even though that technically means they will be breaking the law when the semester starts. Those districts will likely be offering their teachers partial payments at the end of August, something Kirkpatrick stressed was not ideal, but understandable.

"Everybody's deserving of more money," he said. "It's just that we can't give everyone what they want, because the state's cut the school system to the bone."

Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte stressed, however, that Haywood County Schools has an obligation to its employees, especially since it is the biggest employer in the county. Though it is possible that the legislature could pick up this issue again in May and suddenly make partial payments legal, Nolte doesn't necessarily see that as a viable option for teachers, as they wouldn't have a full paycheck until mid-September. In that scenario, many teachers would end up actually owing money to the state due to all the payments that must be made on their benefits. Nolte also believes this could leave many short on mortgages and other payments.

While he didn't say he liked the calendar change, "it's probably the best option we have to get people paid," he said.

After the meeting, he spoke candidly about this issue, explaining that he hopes people understand that the district did not plan for any of this to happen. Instead, this situation is the result of a catch-22 created from the General Assembly's inaction after a legislative decision that was made nearly a year ago. He reiterated that legislators have been promising to bring this up for months but simply haven't.

"They made a mess and they've not fixed it," Nolte said.

Regardless of who's at fault, it doesn't take away from the frustration that will likely be felt by many parents and students caught off guard. Laura Pate, a local mother of two, voiced such concerns after the meeting. She was one of only two parents who attended the night to learn more about the possible changes.

"It's the timing, the waiting "˜til the last second to make the changes" that bothers her, she said, adding that she's absolutely in favor of paying teachers on time, as she believes they don't get paid enough as it is.

This issue is particularly jarring for her because she works at a nearby youth camp. Because of her schedule, she can't take vacations until August, and her family was already planning on being at the beach on the new first day of school. She imagines they still will be, and now expects teachers to make an effort to help her children catch up those missed days.

That still won't change a trend she finds disturbing, however. If this recent legislation stands and school ends of up starting earlier from now on, she won't hardly see her children during the summer at all, as she won't get her break until they're back in school. With an especially high concentration of summer camps in Western North Carolina, Pate wondered out loud if the legislature knew how many people, families in particular, they are affecting.

"It stinks," she said.

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