Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, News

This week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

Don’t get shut out — RSVP today for the upcoming March 28 Crucial Conversation luncheon with state Budget Director Charles Perusse and Senior Advisor to the Governor, Ken Eudyclick here to learn more!

1. Following an acrimonious start, state takeover program settling into North Carolina school

Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County looks like most elementary schools in rural North Carolina.

The 1950s-era school building — located along North Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., in Rowland — is showing its age, but is well-kept.

During a reporter’s visit in February, students, dressed in the school uniform of polo shirts and khakis, are quiet and orderly as they line up to change classes or go to lunch.

[Read more…]

** Bonus read: Senate bill would put brakes on charter school expansion
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2. Facing resistance from some sheriffs, N.C. lawmakers seek to force cooperation with ICE

A “detainer” from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a request for local law enforcement to hold individuals they believe are not lawful citizens in jail or prison for up to 48 hours until the federal agency can take custody and begin deportation proceedings.

Detainers are not judicial orders signed by any court official, and they are not arrest warrants that require any kind of finding of probable cause. The individuals targeted by detainer requests are typically otherwise eligible for release from jail or prison.

Some law enforcement entities honor ICE detainer requests, but, recently, some sheriffs across North Carolina have decided to end voluntary cooperation with the federal agency – in fact, they were elected on that platform, often over their more conservative counterparts. [Read more…]

** Bonus read: New ABA report: Immigration courts ‘irredeemably dysfunctional’ and on ‘brink of collapse’

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3. After East Carolina chancellor’s ouster, a UNC Board of Governors on the brink

When Cecil Staton announced his resignation as chancellor of East Carolina University this week, it had an air of inevitability, but not because of Staton’s performance since his hiring in 2016.

While the UNC System will not release the results of his last “360 job review,” two members of the UNC Board of Governors confirmed to Policy Watch it was a positive one. The members spoke on the condition that their identities remain confidential because they were discussing personnel information the system deems privileged.

(Staton has asked the system to release the review, but it has thus far declined to do so.)  [Read more…]

** Bonus read: ECU Foundation Chair: Staton “was bullied from the beginning”
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4. Duke U. scientists to focus on radon, coal ash, flame retardants in Iredell thyroid cancer cluster probe

Something is changing the genetic code in the cells of young girls in Iredell County.

Duke University scientists last night released preliminary findings of 18 months’ of study into potential causes of papillary thyroid cancer among teen girls, some as young as 13, in the ZIP codes of 28115 and 28117. Those areas include neighborhoods on or near Lake Norman.

Heather Stapleton and Kate Hoffman emphasized that more study is needed, but that radon gas in indoor air, which is naturally occurring, and radioactivity in soil, which could be the result of coal ash, deserve further scrutiny. Three homes in their study where people had been recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer also had significantly elevated levels of compounds used in flame retardants. [Read more…] ===
5. Change comes again to the UNC system, but not to the Board of Governors

Everyone’s taking a powder in the UNC system these days.

Everyone, it seems, but the powerful individuals on the UNC Board of Governors, an onerously large pack of political hell-raisers and right-wingers who’ve sullied the “crown jewel,” North Carolina’s decorated and bedeviled university system.

Whatever you think of Cecil Staton, an ex-Georgia lawmaker turned ECU chancellor whose tortured political history threatened to overshadow his academic pedigree, his departure this week is a disaster, an unofficial sacking that smells malodorously like some kind of coup. [Read more]

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6. Getting real about the minimum wage

A new and promising push to raise North Carolina’s minimum wage gets underway today. Lawmakers and advocates will convene a press conference at the General Assembly this morning to announce the introduction of House Bill 366 – a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next five years and index it to inflation thereafter. A Senate companion bill will be introduced shortly.

In a rational policy environment, such a move would be widely accepted as a long overdue “no brainer” – the kind of step that any healthy society would implement as a matter of course to keep its economy strong and balanced. The data in support of such a change are compelling and plentiful.

Among the findings in a new report from the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project…[Read more…]

** Bonus read: Report: Why raising the minimum wage is good for everyone
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7. Editorial Cartoon:

 

News

Board of Governors, UNC Interim President mum on ECU chancellor ouster

Observers at Friday’s meeting of the UNC Board of Governors were expecting what could euphemistically be called “a frank exchange of ideas” after a week of turmoil and cross-accusations over the ouster of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton.

Instead, there was no exchange at all.

Though board member Steve Long began the week saying board Chairman Harry Smith should be removed from the board for pursuing a personal vendetta against Staton, he sang a different song on Friday.

Toward the beginning of the meeting, held at Appalachian State University in Boone, Long read a statement apologizing to Smith and the board for “intemperate” comments and for speaking publicly on the matter rather than coming to Smith directly.

“I did not do this the right way,” Long said.

Several board members told Policy Watch there was a movement ahead of the meeting to rally vote to officially censure Long for making accusations against Smith publicly. But the two resolved their differences Wednesday night, Smith said at a press conference after the meeting.

“Steve is my friend and will continue to be my friend,” Smith said.

Smith did not say he regretted the actual content of a blistering public letter wherein he said Smith had criticized and undermined Staton’s leadership – only that he should not have publicly aired his thoughts.

Of the actual ouster of Staton – who said he was asked for his resignation rather than initiating conversations about it – neither Smith nor Staton would say much of anything. Beyond noting Staton had resigned, the subject was not broached in any detail during the board’s open session Friday – either during board discussion or during reports from Smith and Interim UNC President Bill Roper.

Roper opened a press conference after the meeting by thanking Staton for his service but refused to answer any questions on his ouster.

“I don’t have a legal obligation to answer your question” he told a reporter after the first question.

Asked if refusing to publicly discuss the matter conformed to pledges of greater transparency both Roper and Smith made when assuming their respective positions, Roper said he is still committed to transparency – but considers Staton’s resignation a personnel matter he doesn’t have to discuss.

Though he seemed visibly uncomfortable during the press conference, Roper would only return to his prepared statement

When pressed, Roper said his initiating Staton’s resignation was continuing conversations that had been going on before he became the UNC system’s interim president.

Staton has for months denied there were any discussions about him stepping down. He has asked that UNC release a recent 360 review of his job performance, which he said was positive. The UNC system has so far refused to release the document.

Several UNC Board of Governors members, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal, this week confirmed to Policy Watch the review was positive.  Smith and Roper have both refused to give any reason Staton was asked to resign – though Smith did repeat denials that he called on Roper to ask for Staton to step down.

Smith did say  there may be information about the situation that would be embarrassing to Staton or the university should it come out — but he would not elaborate, saying it is best to simply move forward.

NC Budget and Tax Center

School construction debate part of a larger infrastructure crisis for NC

The current debate in Raleigh over how to address the billions of dollars in school construction needs is part of a much larger discussion about how to maintain and build the physical infrastructure that makes modern life possible. A new report documents how declining public investments have left America’s roads, bridges, water pipes, sewers, airports, railroads, and schools in bad shape.

See our recent report Make Space for Learning on how years of tax cuts and broken promises created the school facility crisis and for analysis of the competing plans currently in the legislature.

Even as the nation’s engineers sound the alarm, governments across the country are investing less in infrastructure as a share of the economy than at any point since the 1950s, and North Carolina is no exception. Our collective investment in shared infrastructure has fallen markedly, a major reason that our schools, roads, and other systems are in such dire need of an upgrade.

As is often the case during economic downturns, the NC General Assembly diverted funds from infrastructure to address the budget crisis created by the Great Recession, delaying repairs and putting off new projects. What came next, however, was less common. Instead of getting back to work when the economy improved, legislators passed several rounds of tax cuts and kept kicking the infrastructure can down the road.

The choice to pursue tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy is why we are behind on paying for infrastructure that benefits us all. It is why North Carolina passed the $2 billion Connect NC bond to pay for university, community college, and state park facilities in 2016, it is why the legislature authorized the $3 billion Build NC bond Act to update North Carolina’s roads last year, and it is why we are contemplating issuing bonds this year to pay for school, water, and sewer facilities. Tax cuts have costs, and those costs manifest over time in crumbling roads, failing bridges, and decaying classrooms.

Public investments can knit the country together, ensure that our drinking water is free from poison, that our children have inspiring places to learn, and create public spaces and parks that feed the soul. As we can see in the current school construction debate, when we turn away from building a better future, we all suffer.

News

NC Policy Watch claims multiple NC Press Association awards

The North Carolina Press Association held its annual awards dinner last night and the NC Policy Watch team took home several awards for its work in 2018. Policy Watch was awarded second place in the prestigious “General Excellence” category for online publications. First place went to Coastal Review Online and third went to Carolina Public Press.

Other winners in General Excellence for  traditional newspapers included the Winston-Salem Journal, Fayetteville Observer, the Wilson Times, the News Reporter (based Columbus County), and the State Port Pilot (which is based in Southport).

In the individual award categories, PW journalists received the following recognition in the Online Division:

First place for “News Feature Writing” – Lisa Sorg

First place for “Election and Political Reporting – Billy Ball

Second place for “Photography, General News” – Lisa Sorg

Second place for “Serious Columns” – Rob Schofield

Second place for “Election and Political Reporting” – Melissa Boughton

Second place for “Beat Feature Reporting” – Melissa Boughton

Second place for “Education Reporting” – Billy Ball

Second place for “Editorials” – Rob Schofield

Third place for “News Enterprise Reporting” – Joe Killian

Third place for “News Feature Writing” – Lisa Sorg

Third place for “Investigative Reporting” – Billy Ball

Third place for “Editorials” – Billy Ball

Policy Watch Education Reporter Greg Childress was also recognized for his work last year for Raleigh’s News & Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun prior to joining the PW team with a First Place award in the category of “Deadline News Reporting.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Justice for Niecey: Durham agrees to stop housing juveniles, adults together after death of teen

Youth advocates and community members gathered last July outside the Durham County Detention Facility to remember the life of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, a teen who committed suicide while housed there last year. They also called for policy changes to prevent such a situation. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Durham County will stop housing juveniles and adults together in detention as part of a settlement agreement with the family of 17-year-old Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, who committed suicide two years ago at the jail there.

North Carolina does not currently keep track of how many children are locked up with adults in its county detention facilities. Durham County already made some changes following Fennell’s death and a subsequent investigation, but her family and juvenile justice advocates demanded better.

“Losing a child is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced,” said Julia Graves, Fennell’s mother. “It was important to our family that Durham change the way it treats children in its custody. It gives me some peace of mind to know that if this settlement is approved, children detained in the future will be treated more humanely. There is nothing that can take away the pain we still feel from losing Niecey. But there is comfort in knowing that part of her legacy will be making conditions safer for other children.”

The lawsuit Fennell’s family filed and the settlement agreement were filed simultaneously with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina and are currently awaiting the court’s approval. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice represents the family in the case and negotiated the settlement with Durham County and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

The agreement to end the practice of co-housing juveniles and adults, if approved, would be legally-binding and enforceable and would be achievable through the expansion of the Durham County Youth Home or the development of a reasonable alternative.

Other agreements in the settlement include:

  • The removal of all identifiable suicide hazards from the Durham County Detention Facility by the end of 2019 (many hanging hazards, including those identified by a Plaintiff’s expert, have already been remedied);
  • The adoption of a formal policy prioritizing beds in the Durham County Youth Home for Durham County juveniles;
  • Mandatory Crisis Intervention Training for all Durham County detention officers;
  • Staffing of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is able to consult a psychiatrist who is on call 24/7 or available to come to the facility whenever called by the LCSW;
  • Notification to guardians of unemancipated juveniles when they face a life-threatening medical condition, attempt suicide, or make a threat of self-harm; and,
  • A payment of $650,000 to Fennell’s mother

The family was represented by Ian Mance, Whitley Carpenter and Ivy Johnson of the SCSJ’s criminal justice project. Hank Ehlies of the Policy Council for Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill was also part of the legal team.

“We appreciate all of the hard work on the part of Sheriff [Clarence] Birkhead and all parties involved that went into creating this settlement agreement,” Mance said. “It is now clear to all parties that it is unacceptable to house children and adults in the same spaces in detention facilities. We are optimistic that the settlement agreement can help us move forward with policies that make sense and protect children. It’s important to the family of Uniece Fennell that something positive comes from this tragedy.”

North Carolina is the only state in the nation that still defines a juvenile as someone under the age of 16. Lawmakers passed language to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 years old, but that measure won’t take effect until Dec. 1. Until then, state law only requires complete sight and sound separation for juveniles under the age of 16.

Counties, however, can make changes before “Raise the Age” takes effect by housing all youth under the age of 18 in separate pods from adults and by choosing to follow the sight and sound separation guidelines.