News

UNCAttorneys for the University of North Carolina have asked U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs in Winston-Salem to stay proceedings in the case challenging its admissions policies pending review by the U.S. Supreme Court of an affirmative action case out of Texas, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

How the high court rules next term in Fisher will have some bearing on the case filed here in November, Students for Fair Admissions v. UNC, alleging similar flaws in the university’s admission policies. (A separate lawsuit was filed in Massachusetts federal court against Harvard by the same group on the same day.)

As SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston described the Harvard and UNC lawsuits:

The basic thrust of the new lawsuits is that Harvard and the flagship university in North Carolina are using admissions programs that cannot satisfy the tough constitutional test for judging race-based policy — “strict scrutiny.”  But their broader theme is that the Supreme Court’s affirmative action efforts beginning with the Bakke ruling have failed to end racial bias in admissions programs, so it is now time to overrule Bakke and at least one other decision.

In the lawsuits, filed under the name “Students for Fair Admissions Inc.,” attorneys for plaintiffs  selected after a nationwide search by backers of Project for Fair Representation argue that diversity at the schools can be achieved by race-neutral alternatives and that public colleges and others receiving federal funds should be ordered to end the use of race in admissions altogether.

As counsel for UNC pointed out in papers filed yesterday:

The primary issue before the Supreme Court in Fisher II—whether the Fifth Circuit properly concluded that the University of Texas at Austin’s use of racial preferences in its undergraduate admissions program complies with the Supreme Court’s precedents—is the central issue in this case brought by Plaintiff Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. challenging the University’s undergraduate admissions policy. Critical questions in Fisher II will be whether UT-Austin’s admission policy is narrowly tailored to achieve the educational benefits of diversity, what evidence UT-Austin must present to prove that proposition, and how a court must apply strict scrutiny to evaluate whether UT-Austin has met its burden. Because Fisher II presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to clarify further the law governing how public universities may consider race in the admissions process, it is certain to affect the standards that govern this litigation.

The same attorneys representing Fisher at the Supreme Court are representing the students in both the UNC and Harvard cases.

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News

Stephen LaRoque will find out his fate tomorrow, as a federal judge decides whether he should spend time in prison for stealing  $300,000 from a federally-funded non-profit.

LaRoque, a former Republican state representative from Kinston who served in a leadership position, plead guilty earlier this year to the theft, shortly before a second trial was expected to start on criminal charges that he used two economic development non-profits he ran to fund a lavish personal lifestyle.

LaRoque-PCCourt testimony for this first trial, in which convictions were thrown out because of juror misconduct, showed that LaRoque transferred money to and from the bank accounts of the East Carolina Development Company to pay for things like cars, replica Faberge eggs for his wife, a Greenville ice skating rink and a Zamboni ice resurfacer.

LaRoque had denied any criminal wrongdoing at the trial. Instead, he said he was owed the money as part of his salary from the non-profit run by a board made up for several years of himself, his wife and brother.

The non-profit group was funded with millions in U.S. Department of Agriculture funding, as part of an anti-poverty rural lending program intended to offer loans to small businesses in rural area unable to obtain financial backing on their own.

The sentencing hearing will begin at 9 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Greenville, in front of U.S. Senior District Court Judge Malcolm Howard.

LaRoque, who was indicted on federal charges in 2012, following a 2011 N.C. Policy Watch investigation, agreed to pay back $300,000 in restitution in exchange for his guilty plea.

He faces a range of 2 years to 30 months in prison though Howard, the federal judge, could also opt to sentence LaRoque to probation, the punishment that LaRoque and his attorney are asking for.

“Stephen LaRoque is a broken man,” wrote Keith Williams, a Greenville defense attorney, in a memorandum asking for a probationary sentence. “After years of criminal prosecution, his political career is over, his financial standing has shriveled, and he and his wife face serious health issues as they advance in age.”

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Uncategorized

Legislators hoping to enjoy a few days of R&R this week may find a less than warm homecoming from local educators in their districts. The Wilmington Star News writes in a Tuesday editorial:

Education cutsTeachers, it seems as if some North Carolina legislators really want you to move to another state.

The state Senate’s budget plan would eliminate retiree health-care benefits for teachers (and any other state employees) hired after Jan. 1. 2016.

It’s not hard to see why: Health-care benefits for old people can be expensive.

On the other hand, teachers — especially North Carolina teachers — endure years of pay far lower than they could get in the private sector. Part of the trade-off is that they can expect generous — well, comfortable, well, adequate — pensions and benefits to tide them through their golden years.

Not any more, if the Senate has its way. A lot of the incentive for sticking with the public school system would be knocked away.

Officials in the state employees’ association complain that the state has been adding surcharges and other fees to its health plan for years. The increase, more than $1,300 per year for a typical state employee, active or retired — more than wipes out any pay increase that teachers and others have received in many years.

Teachers aren’t eligible for full health benefits as retirees until they’ve served for 20 years.

This comes on top of a Senate proposal to eliminate 8,500 teachers’ assistant positions across the state. The cuts supposedly would pay for around 2,000 new teacher positions to reduce class size.

In fact, eliminating those positions — more than one-third of the teachers’ assistants in the state — would cause problems in the classroom.
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Commentary

Jerry TillmanSenator Jerry Tillman and the rest of the General Assembly are on vacation this week even though they have not finished their most important task of the summer, passing a state budget for the next two years.

The delay is causing problems for school districts across the state as local education officials don’t know how many teacher assistants they can afford to hire or how many textbooks they will  have money to order.

This morning’s News & Observer detailed the uncertainty for year-round schools in Wake County, the state’s largest district, that has the budget flexibility to handle the funding limbo for a while.

It is much tougher for smaller districts that always have to scramble to make sure they have enough staff on hand when most students return to school in August.

This year’s legislative vacation and budget delay makes their job next to impossible. Tillman doesn’t seem too worried about not meeting the budget deadline or what schools are facing.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, said the lead time to hire for the start of the school year depends on when legislators have a budget deal. The General Assembly approved a temporary state budget last week to keep the state running until Aug. 14.

“It could be two months, it could be two weeks,” he said.

School leaders in Wake and other districts have questioned finding the space to handle the lower class sizes proposed by the Senate. More teachers and lower class sizes may require some “creative scheduling” by districts, or “creative use of space,” Tillman said. “Most of them can handle it.”

Two weeks, two months, whatever. School officials will have to guess about their budgets and hire teachers or teacher assistants to teach kids…or not.
Tillman’s not going to lose any sleep over it. It’s only public education after all.
News

In response to a recent order stemming from a 20+ year old court case that requires all North Carolinian children to have access to a sound basic education, the State Board of Education submitted a plan with the court last week to address how it will ensure all students succeed academically — and that proposal includes the establishment of an interagency advisory committee tasked with seeking solutions to educating at-risk students.

From the News & Observer:

In its court filing, the State Board of Education proposed establishing an Interagency Advisory Committee on Public Education to discuss the challenges at-risk students face. A hearing on the Board’s plan, part of the lawsuit called Leandro, is scheduled for July 21-23 before Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.

For years, Manning has criticized persistently low-performing schools and districts. Much of the Board’s response is a catalog of existing teacher preparation and evaluation efforts and classroom practices.

According to the State Board’s filing with the court, the committee would comprise “representatives from key child-focused entities, such as: state agencies (DPI, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Public Safety – Juvenile Justice, etc.); local boards of education; local mental health organizations; private non-profits, including representatives from the charter school community; community colleges, universities and others.”

Those stakeholders would come together to review the challenges at-risk youth face that relate to poverty, health and safety and develop recommendations for the State Board of Education as well as other agencies in an effort to improve educational access.

In their 54-page plan, the State Board highlights the successes they’ve had in supporting low performing schools since the original 1997 Leandro ruling, emphasizing existing teacher preparation and evaluation programs as well as other classroom supports as a way forward in meeting their constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to all students.

But, according to the News & Observer, many of those school improvement efforts have largely been funded with federal Race to the Top funds, which are scheduled to dry up this year. While the House has included some funds to fill in the gap in its 2015-17 budget proposal, the Senate puts the onus on local school districts in its budget to fund those programs going forward.

With the establishment of an interagency advisory committee, the State Board emphasizes that the academic success of all students cannot be accomplished by public schools alone, and that the obligation rests with every state agency as well as the public at large.

Judge Manning will review the State Board’s plan at a hearing scheduled for July 21-23.

Read the State Board’s plan here: The Mandate To Provide An Opportunity For A Sound Basic Education, An Update and Recommendation.