News
Paul Stam 2

Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake)

Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake) told WPTF on Thursday that despite stalled budget talks that have kept the state waiting a month past the deadline for a deal that spells out how the government should run its schools and other agencies, North Carolinians should take heart — everything is running smoothly.

“Every other time I’ve been down here where there was a [budget] delay, they would fund the government you know at 80 or 90 percent of [the] last year,” Stam told WPTF radio host Patrick Johnson yesterday morning.

“This time it’s being funded at 100 percent plus of last year’s budget, so nothing is being shortchanged,” said Stam. “You know, pay raises will be — whatever they end up being — will be retroactive to July 1, but it’s not like the operation of government is being affected.”

Stam’s assessment of how the state is coping with operating under a stopgap measure while lawmakers do battle over a 2015-17 budget agreement doesn’t quite line up with what I’m hearing is happening on the ground.

Public schools are trying to figure out how to staff their schools in the face of potentially having to lay off more than 8,500 teacher assistants over the next two years—and they are still unsure of how much their staff will even earn this fall.

“We are getting ready to open our classroom doors. … And we don’t have a clue yet if we’re going to have to (lay off) 500 teacher assistants or try to hire almost 140 new teachers,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school board member Tim Morgan, a Republican, said at a recent meeting.

While a continuing resolution to keep government operations funded is in place through August 14, Rep. Larry Hall questioned chief budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) this week about whether or not teacher assistants are funded at the same level as last year until a budget deal is reached.

Dollar said to his knowledge, TAs were funded at the same level as last year. But when Hall asked legislative staff to weigh in, they said not quite—more than $20 million that funded TAs last year were non-recurring dollars, which means local districts didn’t get those funds to use while a continuing resolution is in place, putting more stress on their local budgets.

Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill offered a sharp rebuke to lawmakers at a public hearing on the budget convened Wednesday of this week by the House.

“Our students cannot wait for the various levels of government to conclude a budget negotiation,” said Merrill. “You’re currently debating whether to provide money that’s already been spent on tens of thousands of students. We simply can’t un-spend that money once negotiations end and the final budget is decided.”

Also at issue? Driver’s education. House lawmakers appeared this week to be unlikely to waver on their position of keeping driver’s ed fully funded, whereas the Senate is proposing to abandon funding driver’s ed altogether and eliminate the requirement for driver training in order to get a license.

The uncertainty around driver’s education has prompted some local school districts to cancel their summer driving schools—especially problematic in places where the bulk of driver training happens during the summer.

All indications point to lawmakers having to pass a second continuing resolution to keep government operations running past August 14.

“We’d all like to get out of here sooner rather than later, but I’m afraid it is gonna take a while,” Rep. Stam told WPTF, “just because there are so many disagreements.”

News

Robeson County officials settled a complaint with the federal justice department this week, saying it would take steps to improve access for disabled residents to public resources.

The federal agency had found the county had numerous violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which was passed 25 years ago) , leaving those with disabilities unable to access county services and programs as easily as other citizens.

A news release from the U.S. Justice Department about the settlement noted that Robeson County, on North Carolina’s border with South Carolina, has a poverty rate of over 30 percent, and nearly 40 percent of its population identities as Native American, and 25 percent are African-American.

According to the settlement, the county agreed to make changes to buildings and county property so that parking, building entrances, restrooms, service counters and drinking fountains can be accessed by those with physical disabilities. The sheriff’s office will also have to devise a plan so that its deputies and emergency responders can communicate with those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and accommodations will be made at voting sites so that those that use wheelchairs or who are blind or with vision issues can cast votes without hindrances.

The settlement comes the same week the N.C. Auditor’s Office released an audit that found the public school system in Robeson County misused $3 million in Medicaid funds meant for children with special needs.

From an Associated Press article about the audit:

The audit issued Monday says for three fiscal years starting in 2011, the school system did not use about $1 million per year in Medicaid reimbursements to provide services for special-needs students as required.

The school system said in a letter to the auditor’s office that it wasn’t told by state education officials that the money was required to be used for special-needs students. It acknowledges that reimbursement money went to other district needs.

State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said in a letter that education officials will work with Robeson County and districts statewide on how the reimbursements are used.

Click here to read the entire audit.

Robeson County officials settled a complaint with the federal justice department this week, saying it would take steps to improve access for disabled residents to public resources.

The federal agency had found the county had numerous violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which was passed 25 years ago) , leaving those with disabilities unable to access county services and programs as easily as other citizens.

A news release from the U.S. Justice Department about the settlement noted that Robeson County, on North Carolina’s border with South Carolina, has a poverty rate of over 30 percent, and nearly 40 percent of its population identities as Native American, and 25 percent is African-American.

According to the settlement, the county agreed to make changes to buildings and county property so that parking, building entrances, restrooms, service counters and drinking fountains can be accessed by those with physical disabilities. The sheriff’s office will also have to devise a plan so that its deputies and emergency responders can communicate with those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and accommodations will be made at voting sites so that those that use wheelchairs or who are blind or with vision issues can cast votes without hindrances.

The settlement comes the same week the N.C. Auditor’s Office released an audit that found the public school system in Robeson County misused $3 million in Medicaid funds meant for children with special needs.

From an Associated Press article about the audit:

The audit issued Monday says for three fiscal years starting in 2011, the school system did not use about $1 million per year in Medicaid reimbursements to provide services for special-needs students as required.

The school system said in a letter to the auditor’s office that it wasn’t told by state education officials that the money was required to be used for special-needs students. It acknowledges that reimbursement money went to other district needs.

State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said in a letter that education officials will work with Robeson County and districts statewide on how the reimbursements are used.

Click here to read the entire audit.

Commentary

A week after the state Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers were constitutional, the Rocky Mount Telegram writes it’s time for parents to ask some hard questions about the enacted “Opportunity Scholarship” program.

The editorial board writes in Friday’s paper:

School vouchersPublic schools in the Twin Counties alone have plenty of kids who would benefit from a $4,200 per-pupil stipend every year to attend a private school. Almost 70 percent of the 16,000 students in Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools and 85 percent of the 7,500 students in Edgecombe County Public Schools are on a free or reduced price lunch program. If just a quarter of all of those students applied for vouchers, where would the state find money for them? And how would a financially decimated public school system pick up the pieces and move on to educate the rest of our kids?

Those are real issues that school boards and superintendents in systems all over the state will have to wrestle with in the very near future.

While those folks are struggling with finances, parents would be smart to ask some questions, also. For example, how does academic performance at the private school I’m considering compare to performance at the public school where my child is currently enrolled?

Good luck finding an apples-to-apples answer to that. Private schools don’t have to test kids by curriculum standards required of public schools by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Educators in private schools don’t even have to be certified by anyone to teach.

If the N.C. General Assembly is going to require standardized testing in public schools as part of its accountability policy, shouldn’t it require the same of private schools where voucher recipients are spending public tax dollars?

The Supreme Court might have cleared the air on vouchers in North Carolina, but the remaining questions are likely to leave us in the fog for a while to come.

For more on the recent voucher ruling, listen to Chris Fitzsimon’s Friday radio commentary:

NC Budget and Tax Center

For the 2015-16 school year, the NC Department of Public Instruction reports that around 1,200 public schools are eligible to participate in an initiative that aims to fight hunger in high-poverty schools. Referred to as Community Eligibility, this initiative allows eligible high-poverty schools, groups of schools, or school districts to offer breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge.

When children arrive at school hungry, it is very difficult for them to concentrate and do well in the classroom. Accordingly, community eligibility helps ensure that all children in high-poverty schools arrive to class each day fed and ready to learn. Last year, North Carolina got off to a good start with nearly 650 schools (around half of eligible schools) adopting community eligibility to feed more than 310,000 kids. Participating schools note that more NC children are eating school meals because of community eligibility, with a particular increase in the number of children eating breakfast.

The second year of this initiative provides an opportunity for additional eligible schools to join this initiative. With 1,200 public schools eligible for the upcoming school year, this means that hundreds of schools are not currently participating. Eligible schools that are not currently participating in Community Eligibility have until August 31, 2015 to confirm that they will join the initiative.

The impact of Community Eligibility extends beyond ensuring that children arrive to class fed and ready to learn. By eliminating the need to collect school meal applications, schools are able to use their staff more effectively and reduce administrative costs. These cost savings are likely welcomed by local schools amid limited financial resources and tight budgets.

This is not to say that the transition is easy. For example, a key feature of community eligibility is that schools no longer have to collect school meal applications; however, this paperwork has long been key to determining school funding mechanisms and poverty estimates, among other things. However, the USDA and US Dept. of Education have issued a variety of rules intended to address this issue and viable solutions exist for other particular challenges.

North Carolina has an opportunity to build upon its initial success with fighting child hunger through community eligibility. The overall health and prospects for the state will largely depend on the care and attention given to one of our most valuable assets – our youth. Supporting participating schools and getting more eligible schools to join community eligibility helps promote opportunity for all children.

Commentary

Gov. Pat McCrory’s statements on so-called “sanctuary cities” are misleading, inaccurate and alarmist. While the Governor suggests that limiting participation in enforcement of federal immigration guidelines could protect violent criminals, the evidence is clear that the opposite is true.

Across the country, cities, counties, states and police departments have adopted policies that limit their participation in active enforcement of federal immigration laws. The reasoning behind these “limiting” policies is practical: Vigorous enforcement of immigration laws by local police became counterproductive. Victims or witnesses from the immigrant community are less willing to come forward and report crimes if they think their immigration status will be investigated.

The Columbia Journalism Review debunked concerns of sanctuary city critics effectively, noting that “such approaches — driven by concerns over local crime — hardly provide illegal immigrants with anything that could be reasonably called a ‘safe haven’ or sanctuary.'”

It is evident from his public pronouncements that Gov. McCrory is unclear on the meaning of the term “sanctuary city.” He loosely used the term to invoke fear of sanctuary cities when the term is used as a catch-all to describe different types of policies adopted in different cities.

One critical point: What it definitely does not mean is that people who are committing serious crimes such as drug trafficking cannot be arrested and put in jail. All observers agree on this point. All cities and states, whether sanctuary cities or not, have the right and duty to enforce state and local criminal laws and to keep their citizens safe. Gov. McCrory should cease using inaccurate and alarmist rhetoric that suggests otherwise.

As the Columbia Journalism Review put it, “‘Sanctuary city’ is … impossible to define in a meaningful way, and broadly inapplicable to what is happening with immigration in American cities. It is exactly the kind of rhetoric that we need the press to take apart and explain — clearly and repeatedly — all the ways it is misused.”

Regardless of definitions, however, policies that encourage victims of crime and witnesses to come forward and cooperate with the police in keeping their communities safe should be encouraged by reasonable parties on any side of the immigration debate. Ultimately, meaningful federal immigration reform is the best way to allow state and local officials to spend less time worrying about the immigration status of those they encounter, and more on the day-to-day work of investigating and prosecuting crimes. But until federal reform arrives, municipal policies that encourage all community members to feel comfortable communicating with the police are one way to improve community safety.