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All 16 campuses in the North Carolina’s university system want to raise tuition and fees over the next two years.

The combined increases for tuition and fees, if approved, would range from 2 to 7 percent increases for in-state students, and up to 6 percent for out-of-state students for the school year beginning this fall. Additional increases are also being proposed for 2016-17.

At the top end of the scale, the UNC School of the Arts wants to charge students $8,499 and  N.C. State University would like to charge in-state students $8,407 in 2015-16. On the lower end, Elizabeth City State University asked for increases that would bring tuition and fees to $4,657.

A finance and budget committee of the UNC Board of Governors members heard about the requested increases on Thursday. The full 32-member board, all of whom were appointed by Republican state leaders, will meet once more to discuss the tuition increases before a Feb. 27 vote on the increases.

The figures looked at Thursday did not include room and board estimates.

North Carolina’s university tuition rates continue to be lower than what in-state tuition costs at many of its peers, according to information presented at the meeting by university system staff.

But the state also is obligated through the state Constitutions to have higher education costs “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”

With significant cuts to the UNC system during the Recession (including $414 million for the 2011-13 biennium), students and their parents are paying a higher share of their education costs while levels of state support has dropped, according to a 2013 report by non-partisan legislative staff.

The report found that students paid $699 more for their education in 2013 than they did in 2007, while state support has dropped by $2,516 during that same time period.

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Steven LaRoque, the former Kinston state lawmaker facing federal charges of stealing from two federally-funded non-profits he ran, will find out this week if a judge agrees the dozen criminal charges in the case should be thrown out.

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Steven LaRoque, at a 2011 press conference.

A pre-trial motions hearing, scheduled for 9 a.m. tomorrow at the federal courthouse in Greenville, will be a sealed hearing and closed to the public, according to an order filed by Senior U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard.

LaRoque’s trial – his second, after the first ended in a mistrial because of juror misconduct — is scheduled to begin on Feb. 2.

The Kinston Republican is accused of taking $300,000 for his personal use from an economic development group he ran that was funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural business lending program. LaRoque is also facing accusations that, instead of funding struggling businesses to spur economic growth, he used federal money to offer loans to personal associates and political allies, and then took money to fund his campaign and buy jewelry, replica Faberge eggs and a Greenville ice skating rink.

The federal investigation began shortly after N.C. Policy Watch published a 2011 investigation into LaRoque’s management of the federally-funded non-profits.

LaRoque, a former member of House Republican leadership team, has maintained he is innocent of criminal wrongdoing, and that the money in question was owed to him.

Howard wrote in his Jan. 6 order (scroll down or click here to read) that he is sealing the hearing and closing it to the public in order to hear confidential information that may come up in response to a motion LaRoque filed seeking information about the grand jury that indicted him.

Grand jury proceedings are, by design, secret and details about the inner workings of the groups are very rarely released to the public.

“This hearing will be sealed due to the potential for disclosure of grand jury documents or other materials,” Howard wrote.

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Scroll down for reaction from environmental advocates. 

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.