News

Facing massive K-12 infrastructure needs, N.C. lawmakers advance $1.9 billion school construction bond

School busesCalling it a “Band-Aid” for North Carolina’s mounting school construction needs, state House lawmakers on a key K-12 panel advanced bipartisan legislation Tuesday that calls for a $1.9 billion school construction bond referendum next fall.

House Bill 866 passed with support from Republicans and Democrats in the House Education Committee, a rarity in the polarized state legislature these days.

The bill also had the backing of public school advocates, although multiple officials emphasized that the proposal to borrow $1.9 billion assuages only a portion of the state’s estimated $8 billion in school construction demands over the next five years.

“When you’re debating and discussing, please don’t forget about our students,” said Michael Bracy, superintendent of Jones County Public Schools, an eastern North Carolina school district with one of the most anemic tax bases in the state, making school construction funding a particular challenge.

In North Carolina, state government typically is charged with funding classroom needs. Capital costs, more or less, fall to local government. However, given North Carolina’s well-documented need for school buildings, state lawmakers are mulling the first statewide bond to assist in K-12 construction in more than two decades, a proposal Bracy described as a “game-changer” for school districts Tuesday.

“It is truly an economic driver for the state of North Carolina,” added Bracy.

Going forward, the legislation will still require the vetting of a House finance committee, although it enjoys broad support from parties in Raleigh, a point on display during Tuesday’s education panel.

“In rural North Carolina, there is a great need, especially after Hurricane Matthew,” said Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat representing Robeson County.

Republican committee member Jimmy Dixon, meanwhile, said he “enthusiastically” backs the bond, although multiple GOP lawmakers noted a pending proposal for a study of K-12 funding passed the House earlier this session and is awaiting action in the state Senate.

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News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

Former DPI finance chief: Senate budget would “totally destroy” capacity at NC’s public school agency

The recently-retired finance chief of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction says a state Senate-approved $22.9 billion budget would cripple the agency’s ability to provide support and guidance for public school districts.

“The cut proposed in the Senate budget would totally destroy the ability of the (DPI) to deliver’s what’s legislatively required of them to do and also to support the school districts,” Philip Price, DPI’s former chief financial officer, told Policy Watch Monday. “It’s ridiculous to even comprehend how they would be able to manage it.”

Among its myriad controversial provisions, the state budget, which is likely to undergo a facelift in the N.C. House of Representatives, includes a whopping 25 percent cut in operations funding for DPI. That’s about a $13.1 million loss for each year of the biennial budget.

That’s on top of $15 million in cuts over the next two years for central office administration in the state’s school districts.

Senate Republican leadership pitched their spending package as a major investment in teacher pay and principal pay that focuses on outcomes rather than bureaucracy.

However, critics say the Senate’s sweeping cuts to the organization responsible for leading North Carolina’s public schools will severely hamper the agency’s ability to provide support in some of the state’s poorest districts, which are often low-performing.

Price agreed, pointing out larger districts with a deeper tax base are less likely to rely on DPI for professional development and outreach in low-performing schools.

Low-performing school intervention is a key function of the agency’s operations, although DPI also provides oversight and support in curriculum and finance, teacher training and more. The K-12 department’s emerged as a frequent target of GOP education reformers in the state legislature, especially in the state Senate.

“There is zero chance the department could effectively do the job they’re asked to do with that level of reduction,” Price added Monday.

Price retired in February after more than three decades at DPI, where he was integral in developing the state’s public schools budget.

Budget reductions are nothing new for the agency, which, since 2009, has weathered more than $19 million in legislative funding cuts and the loss of hundreds of positions, although K-12 leaders—including Price—agree this year’s GOP-proposed cutbacks would be particularly damaging, a point emphasized by State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey last week.

The DPI budget is just one of several areas of the Senate budget that’s spurred criticism from Democrats and public school advocates who note that—according to a new, nonpartisan report—North Carolina’s national ranking in per-pupil spending dropped to a lowly 43rd this year.

Opponents say the GOP plan’s proposal for about $1 billion in tax breaks for individuals and corporations will starve already underfunded departments such as DPI, although Senate Republicans said last week that they believe their budget plan invests “generously” in public schools while returning money to taxpayers.

“We understand that some want to spend more than this budget spends,” said Senate President Phil Berger, R-Guilford, Rockingham. “But memories can be short. We have not forgotten the mess we found in 2011, the result of years of spending growth at unsustainable levels and we feel strongly that when government collects more than it needs, some of that money should be returned to the taxpayers.”

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat who sits on the chamber’s education and budget committees, called the spending plan a “millionaire’s budget” Monday.

“They want to continue to under-fund and under-invest in public education,” said Chaudhuri. “That’s really the bottom line.”

Despite the potential loss of millions in K-12 funding, DPI’s chief administrator, newly-elected Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, has been quiet on the issue.

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News

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson bemoans lack of “urgency” in State Board of Education

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson is bemoaning a lack of “urgency” in the State Board of Education, according to a Q&A today with WUNC’s Jess Clark.

Johnson’s comments to WUNC come with the superintendent and the board embroiled in a pending court case over the powers of Johnson’s office.

From WUNC’s transcript:

Q: How well do you think the state board is doing? Do you think the state board in touch, do you think that the state board is implementing the laws of the land, creating policies that are moving education forward in North Carolina?

A: I don’t feel the state board has the same sense of urgency I have. I respect them as individuals. They come from various different backgrounds; some come from education, some come from business; all care about students, all care about teachers, all care about what’s going on. You know, this department, the department of public instruction, just needs to be able to change more quickly to respond to the needs of the teachers and students out in the districts.

Q: At the end of this lawsuit, you and state board of education chairman Bill Cobey and all the members of the board will have to work together. What do you see that relationship looking like at the end of all this?

A: I do feel, even through all this, we are working together. Now, we have differences of opinions on my recommendations for who should help me run this department. But we all share the same vision, and that is: Every student should be able to go to school, work hard and reach their American dream. And we also know that we have to support teachers, we have to support principals, we have to engage parents in order to get there. I do not see this as something, regardless of how the lawsuit goes, that will interfere with us working towards that shared vision.

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

North Carolina lawmakers and the State Board of Education are set for a June court date to consider the legislature’s December move to dispatch greater hiring and firing powers to Johnson, a Republican who ousted longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson in November.

Lawmakers have also sought to allow for Johnson to make a few additional hires in recently-filed legislation as well as in the Senate budget, although state board Chairman Bill Cobey has been opposed.

Johnson touches on the hiring dispute in WUNC’s Q&A:

Q: You are now the head of this department, and you’ve said that you’d like to make changes in how the department is run. How would you like to run the department? What are the changes that you would like to see?

A: [Chuckles] Well, I’d like to be able to hire the top deputies that report to me, and I would like to make sure that I’m hiring people that are my recommendations and support my vision; the ultimate vision being: This department in Raleigh needs to be a place that is seen as a department that supports schools in the local districts, not tells schools what to do. Compliance is s huge part of the role of this department. However it shouldn’t be seen as, “We’re the compliance agency, we’re telling you what you have to do, no ifs, ands, buts about it, get it done.” It should be, “We’re the compliance agency. How can we help you comply?” There is work that needs to be done. From day one entering this department, I have had a temporary restraining order placed on me basically preventing me from hiring anyone except three or four people.

News

Details are scarce, but Senate Republicans tout big investments in teacher pay, K-12 funding

Senate President Phil Berger

State Senate Republicans touted major investments in teacher and administrator pay, as well as overall public school funding, in a $22.9 billion budget proposal presented Tuesday afternoon.

While details of the budget plan aren’t expected for release until late Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders announced the broad planks of their two-year spending package, which increases the state’s spending by about half the amount included in Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal.

“We understand that some want to spend more than this budget spends,” said Senate President Phil Berger, R-Guilford, Rockingham, Tuesday.

“But memories can be short. We have not forgotten the mess we found in 2011, the result of years of spending growth at unsustainable levels, and we feel strongly that when government collects more than it needs, some of that money should be returned to the taxpayers.”

GOP leaders said the two year-plan increases overall public education funding by $600 million, giving an average 3.7 percent teacher pay raise in the first year. Berger said the budget will also include “significant” raises for the state’s principals, a nod to recent reports that the state’s principal pay ranks last in the country.

Meanwhile, Sen. Harry Brown, the influential eastern N.C. Republican who co-chairs the Senate budget committee, said the plan will include financial incentives for teachers in low-performing schools and in other hard-to-staff areas, such as special needs and science and math instruction.

Lawmakers added that they will not back down on controversial plans to expand the state’s annual investment in private school vouchers from about $44 million this year to $144 million by 2027-2028 , a major point of contention for public school advocates who point out the mostly religious schools operate without the same scrutiny or anti-discrimination protections.

It will also increase the state’s funding for textbooks and digital resources with $10 million in recurring funds, Brown said, following frequent complaints from K-12 advocates that the state’s classroom funding has fallen woefully short.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Jones, Onslow

Also of import, Brown said the budget will “codify” Senate leadership’s intent to gather data on funding needs for elementary “specialty” teachers in arts and physical education, following a compromise over class-size funding last month that included GOP promises to consider a new funding allotment for the endangered classroom positions.

Without that compromise on House Bill 13, local school districts said thousands of specialty elementary teachers’ jobs would have been lost.

State Senators are expected to move swiftly on the budget plan. Days ago, the chamber’s leadership indicated they hoped to pass the budget through committees and on the Senate floor by the end of the week, setting up a breakneck pace for a budget that has, as of this writing, yet to be released publicly.

The N.C. Democratic Party responded quickly Tuesday, blasting Republicans for authoring a budget plan that they say favors the wealthy and corporations over the middle class.

“Senate Republicans have prioritized tax giveaways for millionaires and corporations over important investments in our state,” the party’s executive director, Kimberly Reynolds, said in a statement. “Governor Cooper’s common sense budget is a blueprint to boost our growing state to make sure we can keep up and keep our economy strong. It’s unfortunate that Senate Republicans are more focused on helping the wealthy at the expense of working families.”

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Report: Some charter school leaders slam “company” charter bill

Some North Carolina charter leaders are fired up over a legislative proposal to set aside half of a charter school’s enrollment as a corporate “perk,” a new report from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation’s Lindsay Wagner finds.

The news comes with the state Senate expected to consider House Bill 800 in the coming weeks. House lawmakers passed the bill late last month, potentially granting enrollment priority to private corporations that donate land, tech, infrastructure or renovations to a charter.

A national, nonpartisan charter policy organization has already expressed concerns with the bill, which they described as perhaps the first of its kind in the nation.

Charter schools are tuition-free, publicly-funded schools that do not operate under the same curriculum and staffing rules as traditional public schools.

From Wagner’s report:

A bill moving through the North Carolina legislature that would allow corporations to essentially buy spots at public charter schools for their employees’ children has a lot of folks upset—including some charter school leaders.

“It’s just not the right thing for kids,” said Stephen Gay, the superintendent at East Wake Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Zebulon, about HB 800. “These are kids’ lives, and we need to be doing what’s right for them.”

Drawing an analogy to old mill towns, Gay is worried that if corporations that donate land or a building or make other investments in a public charter school are then repaid with access to a substantial supply of that charter school’s coveted seats, it could be the for-profit company that drives what happens at the school—not the school’s leaders or the nonprofit board tasked with overseeing them.

“Think about the turn of the century,” said Gay. “We used to have mill towns, and the mill owned everything—the store, the school, the church…the mill owned your life. And so with this bill, what you are doing is you are going to sell part of your soul to a business.”

As Policy Watch reported last month, some Democrats questioned whether the bill subverts the public nature of charters, potentially creating private, company schools paid for with taxpayer dollars.

But House Republicans backed the bill, arguing that the proposal would serve as an economic incentive for corporations.

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