Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

Gov. Roy Cooper won’t veto class size, Board of Elections, pipeline omnibus

Gov. Roy Cooper addressed the class size bill Wednesday
at the Executive Mansion (Photo taken by Billy Ball).

Gov. Roy Cooper says he won’t veto an omnibus bill that eases North Carolina’s class size crisis, despite several parts of the bill that he calls “political attacks and power grabs.”

“Our kids in schools are too important,” said Cooper. “But we do need to talk about the bad parts of the bill.”

The legislation, which he characterized as “a sigh of relief that came too late,” phases in class size caps for grades K-3 over the next four years and offers recurring funding for arts, music and physical education teachers that might have been crowded out by districts’ search for cash to fund new classroom educators.

“The class size chaos that this legislature started caused agony and anger and angst across this state for no reason,” said Cooper.

Meanwhile, Cooper said the deal only “partly” resolves the state’s class size headache, pointing out that—as Policy Watch reported today—the accord comes with no funds for school districts’ construction needs arising from the state mandate.

Cooper said school superintendents were “wringing their hands not knowing what to do” over the infrastructure issues. Many districts will have to spend millions to find new classroom space.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen school superintendents that desperate,”said Cooper. “And these legislators let that problem fester for two years.”

Additionally, the state continues to grapple with a teacher shortage that may vex local school leaders’ efforts to fill more classrooms, a point brought up by the governor Wednesday.

“A smaller class size doesn’t do much good with no teacher in it,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s decision likely has little impact on the bill’s fate, considering the GOP-dominated General Assembly has a veto-proof voting majority on the legislation.

Republicans described the package bill, delivered as a conference report on House Bill 90 last week, as pulling together multiple, urgent issues, including a still-brewing court battle over an elections and ethics board merger, as well as a $58 million environmental mitigation fund that Cooper announced shortly after the pipeline received its permits.

GOP lawmakers say Cooper doesn’t have the authority to oversee that fund. They also suggested the Democratic governor negotiated a “quid pro quo” arrangement to secure the pipeline, which Republican legislators also support.

Cooper said Republicans’ actions “imperiled” that mitigation fund, arguing that he wasn’t sure what would become of the funding now. Legislators say they want to spend the cash on school districts along the pipeline’s route.

The governor also chided GOP legislators for another attempt to merge state elections and ethics boards, a move seen as curbing Cooper’s appointment powers. The state Supreme Court ruled in Cooper’s favor in an ongoing lawsuit over the boards, and a lower court is expected to decide soon how to proceed.

Cooper said this component of the bill is an “unconstitutional scheme.”

 

Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

Class size omnibus passes easily, despite stiff opposition to Board of Elections, Atlantic Coast Pipeline provisions

Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

An omnibus bill alleviating some of the headaches associated with North Carolina’s class size crisis easily passed the state House by a 104-12 margin Tuesday, despite continuing opposition from top Democrats on its controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Board of Elections provisions.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who helped to assemble last week’s compromise conference report on House Bill 90, said the bill gives districts “much requested” time to prepare for the state’s new K-3 class sizes by phasing in its caps on average and maximum class size over the next four years.

The legislation, which also creates a $61 million recurring funding allocation for arts, music and physical education teachers, comes after years of mounting pressure on the Republican-dominated General Assembly to either ease their 2016 class size mandate or provide additional funding to save those so-called “enhancement” teaching positions.

As Policy Watch has detailed, local school districts would need to cough up millions or lay off scores of enhancement teachers to find space for the necessary new K-3 classroom teachers.

The legislation also modifies eligibility requirements for the GOP-backed, controversial Personal Education Savings Accounts and purports to provide sufficient funding to clear the waiting list for the state’s widely-backed, Pre-K program.

Multiple Republicans insisted this week and last that the revised House Bill 90, which was crafted behind closed doors, was a “bipartisan” measure.

“We do not have to be separated on this,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, the Cabarrus County Republican who co-chairs the chamber’s education and budget committees.

Yet, while many Democrats ultimately voted for the conference report because of its class size fix, some components of the omnibus bill clearly rankled minority party members in the House and Senate.

One section seeks to control spending from a $58 million environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a fund that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office seeks to administer (Note: See the report today from Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg on the ACP).

Also, a separate portion seeks to merge state elections and ethics panels while curtailing Democrats’ majority on the appointed elections board. The N.C. Supreme Court struck down Republicans’ merger of the panels last month, and GOP lawmakers are seeking to author their own fix before it’s taken up by a lower court.

“This is a difficult vote to take, and it’s difficult because we’re voting on three separate matters,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat who dubbed the package a “kitchen sink bill.”

Democrats also chafed over a lack of school construction funding in the measure.

“This bill does not address the needs in education that we know, Republicans and Democrats both know, are so necessary right now,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat.

Legislative Republicans countered that K-12 infrastructure is historically a local government funding matter in North Carolina. However, state House members have widely supported a statewide $2 billion school construction bond referendum, which would address a portion of the state’s estimated $8 billion in K-12 capital needs, but Senate lawmakers have not taken up the matter.

“Like in all bills, there’s always more work to be done,” said Horn. “I’m looking forward to your support on that more work.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The bill will now proceed to Cooper’s office. Cooper seems likely to veto the bill due to its pipeline and elections portions, although the legislature has the votes to override the Democrat’s veto.

Some Democrats suggested Tuesday that, with state courts still deciding the fate of the legislature’s election board tinkering, the class size fix could be “held hostage” by the legal wrangling.

Rep. Darren Jackson, the House Democratic Leader, said the lack of a severability clause may nix the entire bill if courts find one portion unconstitutional, although a longtime General Assembly attorney cast doubt on that claim this week.


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Courts & the Law, Education, News

Class size fix rolls through Senate, but Democrats denounce “Frankenstein’s monster” bill

North Carolina senators took a key step in delivering long-sought relief on a class size mandate to the state’s public school districts Friday, but Democrats denounced the “Frankenstein’s monster” bill for its inclusion of multiple partisan jabs at Gov. Roy Cooper.

The amended version of House Bill 90—which was rolled out Thursday and passed in the Senate Friday by a 37-5 margin—retains the “status quo” on K-3 class size caps in the coming year, and phases in reduced class sizes in the following three years.

Members of the state House of Representatives aren’t expected to consider the conference report until Monday or Tuesday.

The deal, which was negotiated behind closed doors in recent weeks, also budgets about $61 million in recurring spending on so-called “enhancement” teachers, the arts, music, language and P.E. teachers whose jobs were so imperiled by lawmakers’ 2016 mandate to slash K-3 class sizes.

“This bill gives us a reasonable pathway to smaller class sizes,” said Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Wake County Republican who says she was involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiating that yielded this week’s pact.

But Democrats admonished Republicans, arguing that without controversial provisions aimed at merging state elections and ethics boards and controlling how $58 million in Atlantic Coast Pipeline mitigation funds are spent, the legislation would have passed unanimously.

“What’s sad to me is somehow that’s not good enough for you,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat. “There has to be a divisive poison pill in everything that we do.”

Republicans are already mired in an ongoing court battle with Cooper over their effort to curtail his party’s majority on the Board of Elections, although the state Supreme Court ruled in Cooper’s favor last month.

The bill would add a ninth member to the panel unaffiliated with any party, but continues to seek an even party split on the remaining eight seats. Previously, the governor’s party was guaranteed a majority on the board.

The legislation’s other sticking point centered on GOP legislators’ effort to control how pipeline mitigation funds are spent. Cooper announced the creation of the fund, donated by energy companies that benefit from the pipeline, around the same time as the controversial pipeline got the green-light from his administration. The governor’s office says he will control the fund, although legislators say he has overstepped his authority.

Republicans have also accused Cooper of striking a “quid pro quo” deal with energy companies, providing pipeline permitting in exchange for the environmental mitigation cash, a charge Cooper denies.

Despite their criticism, most Senate Democrats voted for the proposal Friday. Yet those who did expressed heartburn about its hybrid approach to packaging multiple hot-button issues in one conference report.

“When you put these provisions in this bill in this manner in which it is, you make it unfair. You make it political,” said Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing multiple counties in eastern North Carolina.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, an Asheville Democrat, called the chamber’s overhaul of  the elections board “highly partisan and frankly insulting.”

Republicans countered that the legislation simply bundles together multiple pressing issues that needed to be addressed in a timely fashion by the legislature.

“I cannot see the reason why it has been demonized,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican representing several western North Carolina counties.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Republican who led class size negotiations for the GOP-dominated chamber, said dissenting Democrats were indicating greater loyalty to Cooper than the public schools.

“You can work yourself up, you can do the hyperbole,” said Barefoot. “This bill produces solutions for our students.”

Despite the back and forth, Democrats said Republicans were to blame for the long-running, class size consternation, claiming that GOP lawmakers ordered smaller K-3 classrooms without providing sufficient funding.

“This body set fire to our public schools and now we are the firefighters,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat. “You can’t be the arsonist and the firefighter at the same time.”

Education, News

House, Senate leadership push plan to ease North Carolina class size crisis

State House and Senate leaders in the N.C. General Assembly say they have a plan for easing North Carolina’s class-size tumult.

Senate and House K-12 leaders announced details at a press conference Thursday afternoon, rolling out a four-year, phase-in plan for the deal and $61 million in recurring funding for “enhancement” teachers—arts, music, world language and physical education teachers.

[Update] The changes were bundled into revisions of House Bill 90. The bill also seeks to seize control of an environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that is slated to be controlled by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. Furthermore, it delves into Cooper and the legislature’s ongoing battle over the State Board of Elections—both provisions that are likely to spur the ire of Cooper’s office.

The deal is said to retain the “status quo” for class sizes in the upcoming 2018-2019 school year. Advocates hope it will offer long-term assurances to head off the partisan clashes on K-3 classrooms that have dominated the last two years at the legislature.

“This has been one of the General Assembly’s top priorities for years,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican who co-chairs the Senate education budget committee. “From parents to legislators and even Gov. Cooper, I think it’s a goal that we all support.”

Lawmakers say they arrived at the deal after weeks of closed-door negotiations over the fate of North Carolina’s K-3 mandate, which began in 2016 when GOP legislators ordered local school districts to slash class sizes in the early grades.

Some Republican budget writers said they sought smaller classrooms, but a wave of criticism from Democrats, local districts and public school advocates urged action before school systems were forced to cough up millions or lay off potentially thousands of arts, music and P.E. teachers.

Such “specialty” or “enhancement” teachers were at risk because the state mandate, without additional state funding, would have left local leaders scrambling to find budget space to hire classroom teachers in the core subjects in order to reduce class sizes.

Advocates also warned that the directive would imperil Pre-K programs, pack classes in grades 4-12 and cost districts millions to find new classroom space. Legislators said the plan would end the state’s waiting list for its Pre-K program.

On Thursday, Barefoot called the class size crisis “one of the most difficult issues I’ve had to resolve as a legislator.”

The bill includes a dedicated funding stream for enhancement teachers, Republicans said. And while the “core” classroom teacher allotment will be restricted to that use, the enhancement teacher allotment can also be spent on classroom teachers, Barefoot said.

“Make no mistake, we are determined to lower average class sizes,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee. “That is a high priority for us, we’re pursuing that. We’re just going to stage it out, rather than doing it in one fell swoop.”

[Update] Members of a joint legislative budget committee approved the GOP-authored legislation—which includes a plan to relax some eligibility restrictions for Personal Education Savings Accounts—Thursday afternoon. Of particular import: The bill strips the requirement that an eligible recipient must have been a full-time student in a public school.

The controversial program provides a debit card for families of children with special needs to spend on private school enrollment.

Horn said the new guidelines were intended to address children with special needs who may not be full-time students, pointing out some children may only attend a traditional school setting half a day before departing for another facility.

“They fell through the cracks on that,” said Horn. “This solves that problem.”

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, helped to negotiate the fix, legislators said. On Thursday, Joyce called the bill a “viable solution.”

“We believe this phase-in period will provide the time needed for those important next steps,” said Joyce.

A Democratic-proposed resolution that would stave off class size cuts this year has yet to move in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, although Democrats who spoke to Policy Watch Thursday said it seemed likely that party members would vote for today’s GOP-written measure, despite its jabs at Cooper.

Meanwhile, legislative leadership, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, expressed support for the pact.

Moore called the deal a “great collaboration” between both chambers. “Schools are going to be even better off next year than they are this year,” he said.

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy group from Raleigh, said the legislation provides “badly-needed certainty” for districts. Poston also complimented lawmakers for their Pre-K provision.

“We applaud members of the General Assembly for putting forth legislation that invests more in early education learning and provides a reasonable pathway to realize lower class sizes in our public schools,” Poston said in a statement.

Updates as they become available.

Education, News

Sen. Chad Barefoot to talk class size crisis on “Education Matters” this weekend

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Franklin, Wake

A bit of news for those following North Carolina’s class size drama: One of the state Senate’s top budget negotiators is expected to perhaps shed some light this weekend on when or if lawmakers will propose some resolution.

The Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan research and policy group in Raleigh, says their “Education Matters” program on WRAL will feature Sen. Chad Barefoot, the Wake County Republican who co-chairs the Senate’s education committee.

The Forum says they intend to ask Barefoot about the funding turmoil. House leaders have been noticeably more eager to adopt some relief for school systems than Senate legislators thus far.

As you may recall, Barefoot was one of the major players involved in last year’s temporary class size resolution, a crisis with the potential to cost local districts thousands of jobs for arts, music and P.E. teachers.

Policy Watch reported this week that at least one key Republican assured constituents in recent days that he expects the Senate to act in March. Meanwhile, a top House budget writer has also promised relief is coming. 

The trouble began in 2016 when GOP legislators ordered school districts to cut class sizes in the lower grades. But districts warned of myriad complications should the order go into effect at the beginning of the 2018-2019 fiscal year with no additional funding or flexibility from the state.

With school districts already prepping plans for next year’s budget, the timing of the legislature’s action, or inaction, will be key.

Depending on your location, “Education Matters” can be viewed this weekend on WRAL, Fox 50 or UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel.

Keep following for more updates.