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The new head of North Carolina’s environmental and natural resources agency has shaken things up in the state agency in his first month on the job, and replaced two top deputies this week.

DENRpicDonald van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee selected to lead the agency last month by Gov. Pat McCrory, replaced two of the agency’s assistant secretaries – Mitch Gillespie and Brad Ives – and is replacing them, according to a news release from the agency.

Gillespie, a former Republican lawmaker from Marion who joined DENR in 2012, was the assistant secretary for the environment. Ives was the agency’s assistant secretary for natural resources, and worked before his 2012 arrival at the agency at several renewable energy companies. Both earned $119,000 in their jobs.

Tom Reeder, who had headed DENR’s Division of Water Resources , will take Gillespie’s place, and Mary John Pugh will serve in an interim role as the assistant secretary for natural resources, according to a news release from DENR. Pugh was a deputy director at the N.C. Zoo.

“Tom Reeder is an experienced regulator, manager and longtime DENR employee,” van der Vaart said, in a written statement released by the agency. “Tom’s engineering background and extensive regulatory expertise will be an asset in leading DENR’s efforts to provide for clean air, water and land. On the natural resources side, I wish to thank Mary Joan Pugh for taking on this assignment while we initiate a search for the leadership of our natural resource assets.”

Gillespie will move into a new position as a department liaison out of the agency’s Asheville office working as a western outreach director that will work “to strengthen environmental efforts in Western North Carolina and ensure that the concerns of citizens, local governments and the regulated community are being heard.”

Donald van der Vaart, new secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Donald van der Vaart, new secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

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Charter school operator Baker Mitchell Jr. filed a defamation lawsuit last week against the former Brunswick County superintendent, claiming Mitchell’s reputation was tarnished by statements critical of his business interests in charter schools and public charter schools in general.

Mitchell is a founder of Charter Day School in Leland and his company Roger Bacon Academies receives millions in public dollars to run four charter schools in the Wilmington area.

He’s seeking more than $100,000 in damages for statements made by former Brunswick Superintendent Edward Pruden about charter schools, including that “public charter schools assist in ‘dismantling’ North Carolina’s system of public education,” according to this article in the Port City Daily. Mitchell contends that Pruden made false statements that damaged Mitchell’s reputation.

Pruden, who openly questioned the amount in public funding that went to schools run by Mitchell,  was fired by the Brunswick County school board late last year, seven months short of the expiration of his contract. No reason was given by the school board for the early termination.

From the Port City Daily:

In the lawsuit, Mitchell claims Pruden, while acting as superintendent of the Brunswick County school district between 2010 and 2014, made a series of false claims against Mitchell and Roger Bacon Academy. The Brunswick County Board of Education fired Pruden in November, seven months ahead of his previously announced retirement date.

“Pruden has falsely stated to third parties that public charter schools assist in ‘dismantling’ North Carolina’s system of public education…and that public charter schools have ‘morphed into an entrepreneurial opportunity,’” according to the suit.

Mitchell alleges that Pruden demonstrated his “combative attitude” toward the charter school system in a variety of formats including a YouTube video, “published to thousands of third parties” in 2013, in which Pruden argues that Brunswick County Schools is “superior to the ‘competition’” because it “does not ‘operate for a profit.’”

Further, Mitchell claims when Roger Bacon Academy applied with the state Office of Charter Schools in 2013 to open South Brunswick Charter, Pruden began an “obsessive public campaign to derail approval” of the new site.

Mitchell says Pruden intentionally caused his Local Education Agency Impact Statement–a document submitted to the state as part of the charter approval process–to be published by the media.

“The Impact Statement contains numerous statements that, when considered as a whole, maligns Mitchell and [Roger Bacon Academy] and casts dispersions on Mitchell’s honesty, character and moral standing in the community.”

In that statement, Pruden accused Mitchell’s “private companies” of profiting from taxpayer dollars in the amount of $16 million.

Pruden told the news site that he wasn’t worried about the lawsuit and “I will say that the absolute defense is truth.”

Mitchell, whose business network of running charter schools was extensively documented in this ProPublica article last year, was recently involved in a stand-off with the State Board of Education over the disclosure of salaries of personnel at the public charter schools.

That information was eventually disclosed, but not until after the state board threatened to take disciplinary action against the schools.

 

 

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The UNC Board of Governors is delaying the release of a much-anticipated report about a review of the university system’s centers and institutes.

UNCsystemThe report, which could recommend cuts or consolidations of various academic centers, was supposed to be presented to the full UNC Board of Governors at next week’s meeting. It will now be presented at the Feb. 27 meeting.

Questions have been raised about the goals and purposes of the review, which is being conducted by a working group of the 32-member UNC Board of Governors, all of whom received their appointments from state Republican leaders.

In December, working group members questioned why conservative viewpoints weren’t explored more fully at several UNC-Chapel Hill centers, including the UNC law school’s Center for Civil Rights and the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity. (Click here for more background.) The UNC poverty center is headed by Gene Nichol, an outspoken law professor who has been critical of policies coming from the McCrory administration and Republican-led state legislature.

Jim Holmes, the Board of Governor member leading the effort, has said repeatedly that the group had no partisan or political aims when it began examining the more than 200 centers located on 16 different campuses. The review has now been reduced to 34 groups, several of which serve or study minority or disenfranchised populations. (Click here and scroll down for a list.)

A draft of the report wasn’t finished over the winter holidays, and a public meeting will be held sometime before the Feb. 27th meeting for the working group to finalize the report, said Joni Worthington, a spokeswoman for the UNC system.

The date for that meeting has not been announced.

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Stephen LaRoque, the former state representative from Kinston facing charges of stealing from a federally-funded non-profit, warned that he would seek revenge shortly after his 2012 indictment, according to recently filed court documents.

LaRoque

LaRoque

LaRoque, a Republican from Kinston, is facing a dozen charges related to $300,000 that federal prosecutors contend he took from an economic development group funded through a rural lending project in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to buy things like replica Faberge eggs, cars and a Greenville ice skating rink.

The federal probe into LaRoque began after a 2011 N.C. Policy Watch report about LaRoque’s non-profit, that found he received generous salaries from the federally-funded non-profit from a board of directors that for several years consisted of LaRoque, his wife and brother.

He has denied any wrongdoing, and has previously said the $300,000 in question was owed to him.

George Vital, a USDA program official that oversaw parts of the rural lending program spoke with LaRoque shortly after the July 2012 indictment. LaRoque, according to Vital, wanted to have top officials at North Carolina Rural Development office fired and thought he could do that if his preferred 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was elected.

LaRoque’s threats were detailed in a motion filed by federal prosecutors Friday, and included in a summary federal agents wrote up about a July 2012 interview with Vital.

Vital had been upset that he was bypassed for a promotion at USDA, and called LaRoque the day after the indictment to talk about Bruce Pleasant, who oversaw the rural lending program in the state, and Randall Gore, the appointed head of the USDA’s Rural Development office for North Carolina.

From court documents:

VITAL explained that he told LAROQUE about his [Mr. Vital’s] administrative complaint against GORE [the presidentially appointed North Carolina RD Director] and PLEASANT. VITAL was upset that he [rather than Pleasant] did not get promoted into the position being occupied by PLEASANT.

LAROQUE complained about PLEASANT and wanted to know how to get PLEASANT and GORE fired from their respective jobs. LAROQUE asked VITAL to pull any records on bad loans that PLEASANT may have been involved with. VITAL said LAROQUE was talking about becoming the RD State Director if Newt Gingrich was to win the nomination and get elected as president. LAROQUE was working to get Gingrich elected and this would help LAROQUE get the people at RD fired. LAROQUE would make heads roll at RD if things worked out for him and the election.

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Many North Carolina counties are seeing steady drops in their unemployment rates, while a fifth of the counties saw unemployment rates climb in November from the prior month, according to county-level jobs numbers released by the N.C. Commerce Department’s Labor and Economics Division.

This month’s results (scroll down to see county rankings) show that all 100 counties lowered their unemployment rates over the last year. Two counties — Graham and Scotland – had unemployment rates over 10 percent, while

But there’s still a gap in most of the state from where local economics were before the nation’s Great Recession began in early 2008.

Two-thirds of North Carolina 100 counties in North Carolina had unemployed people now than they had in December 2007, and 67 counties also had smaller labor forces.

(The state overall had 246,318 unemployed people in November 2014, an increase of 34,482 from December 2007 levels. The labor force, however, has grown from 4.5 million in Dec. 2007 to 4.62 million in November 2014.)

This chart (which has data through Oct. 2014 and hasn’t been updated to include today’s data) from the N.C. Budget and Tax Center shows that 15 counties in the state have seen drops of higher than 10 percent of the number of people employed in counties. (Note: Both N.C. Policy Watch and the Budget and Tax Center are part of the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty non-profit).

BTCemploymentchart

 

Jobs data for November 2014 shows that the state, as a whole, had 25,373 more people working now than it did a year ago. Unemployment rolls also dropped in that time period by nearly 80,000, and several economists say that gap is caused in large party by “missing workers” that exited the labor force after struggling and not finding work.

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