State Board of Ed panel spreads cheer with Florence recovery aid, but seeks accountability

Christmas came a little early for several schools in Brunswick, Columbus and New Hanover counties by way of FAST NC grants designed to help school districts in 28 counties impacted by Hurricane Florence.

A State Board of Education (SBE) panel on Thursday, just five days before Santa’s scheduled arrival, approved modest grants totaling nearly $31,000 schools in those counties can use to replace instructional rugs, P.E. equipment, books and other such items damaged or lost during Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed.

FAST NC, which stands for “Florence Aid to Students and Teachers of North Carolina” was created in the aftermath of the hurricane and is led by a bipartisan group of current and former North Carolina education leaders.

Protesters gathered in Raleigh earlier this year to demand action from state lawmakers to provide for a just hurricane recovery effort.

But even Santa has accountability standards in these matters. A request from Duplin County Schools for more than $46,000 to replace dozens of “missing or destroyed” iPads, sound bars, power supplies and other such items was placed on hold until the panel receives clarity about how the items came to be missing.

The school district’s needs totaled more than $51,000. The state’s insurance provider will pay $5,000 to cover the losses.

State School Board member Olivia Oxendine told her colleagues that she’ll have trouble supporting the award if the losses are due to theft.

“This one raises concerns for me,” Oxendine said during a teleconference Thursday.
In addition to Oxendine, the four-member panel included SBE Chairman Eric Davis, SBE Vice Chairman Alan Duncan and board members Olivia Holmes Oxendine and Amy White.

The awards are based on recommendations from the FAST NC steering committee that includes Davis, State Superintendent Mark Johnson, former state superintendents June Atkinson and Mike Ward, former State Board of Education Chairman Phil Kirk and Henry Johnson, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and former Mississippi State Superintendent.

The awards were the third-round of FAST-NC grants approved by the committee. A fourth round of awards is scheduled for early next year.
Of the $31,000 the committee approved on Thursday, about half will go to help 90 teachers In New Hanover County displaced by the storm. However, the committee’s approval didn’t come until after a robust discussion about the appropriateness of awarding FAST-NC money to individuals.

In its request, New Hanover Schools said the money would “directly benefit” employees “directly impacted by Hurricane Florence.”
In the end, committee members agreed to award the grant but to also send the school district a reminder that FAST-NC money is intended to support classroom instruction and not the individual needs of teachers.

Ward, who sits on the FAST-NC steering committee, noted that Pender County was given the flexibility to award teachers and teaching assistants individual grant amounts to replace lost instructional materials they’d purchased with their own money.

The panel agreed to use that example to provide guidance to district officials in New Hanover County on the distribution and use of FAST-NC grants.

Deanna Townsend-Smith, the SBE director of operations and policy, said $78,000 has been raised for FAST NC through the NC Education Fund, which had roughly $340,000 when the fundraising effort began.

Stay tuned to see how the Duplin County Schools’ request plays out

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