Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, Legislature, News, Voting

The week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. Lack of support for power-grabbing amendments speaks volumes

There are a lot of strange – even downright bizarre – aspects to the ongoing effort by North Carolina Republican legislators to pass a slate of six constitutional amendments during this fall’s election.

There is, for instance, the absurd dearth of process that accompanied the approval of the amendments during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session. Ideally, constitutional amendments are accompanied by weeks, or even months, of debate, multiple public hearings, lengthy oral testimony and written analyses from academics and other experts, detailed findings from study commissions and extended opportunities for the public at-large and various interest groups to weigh in.

This year, however, few, if any, of those things were present. Instead, lawmakers rammed through all six amendments during the final week of June. Two of the amendments were then actually rewritten in a single day at the end of August – just a handful of days prior to the distribution of absentee ballots. [Read more…]

2. PFAS, but not GenX, found in blood of residents living near Chemours plant

Four types of fluorinated compounds were detected in blood samples of all 30 people tested who live near the Chemours plant, although none of the compounds was GenX, the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced today.

In July, DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cumberland County Health Department tested for 17 types of fluorinated compounds in the blood and urine of 30 people living near the facility, which abuts the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

All of the people who voluntarily participated in the program use well water for their household needs. Many of the private wells, plus rainwater, lakes, soil, groundwater and even honey have tested positive for fluorinated compounds. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: Last chance for the red wolf? Advocates ask federal judge to intervene to preserve endangered species

3. Questions linger about victims’ rights constitutional amendment, big budget campaign

Early voting started Wednesday, which means North Carolinians will finally get to decide on six proposed constitutional amendments, including one that would bolster crime victims’ rights.

At first glance, voting on an amendment to enhance victims’ rights may seem like a no-brainer, but like many issues, it’s not so black and white. Supporters of the amendment say victims need teeth in the law to assert their rights. Opponents say victims’ rights already are enshrined in the constitution and enhancing them should be done by statute, not by an experimental amendment. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: 3-judge panel rules Board of Elections, Ethics Enforcement structure unconstitutional

4. Battle looms as state officials propose takeover of Goldsboro elementary school

If North Carolina goes forward with the recommendation to allow a private charter operator to take control of a Goldsboro elementary school, they should expect a stubborn resistance, the school’s principal told Policy Watch Wednesday.

“You’re bringing in outside people, but Wayne County is a unique district,” said Carver Heights Elementary Principal Cortrina Smith. “You are going to consistently receive pushback, because we don’t know you, but you’re in my house and you’re trying to tell us what to do. You don’t know my kids, you don’t know my community.”

Smith is in her third year as principal at the struggling Goldsboro school, which serves a predominantly poor population in eastern North Carolina. But if the State Board of Education approves the so-called Innovative School District’s (ISD) recommendation this week to turn over operations and leadership in the elementary to a yet-to-be-named private operator, the school may see many of its teachers and administrators, including Smith, scuttled in the next year. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: NC’s latest school takeover experiment will deny Goldsboro students the education they deserve

5. Eastern North Carolina residents press for a just hurricane recovery

As lawmakers gathered Monday to approve funding for Hurricane Florence relief, residents and community leaders from Eastern North Carolina came together outside the General Assembly.

They told their personal recovery stories and encouraged lawmakers to put recovery money – and their political power – where it’s most needed.

The Just Florence Recovery Collective represents more than 25 community organizations and dozens of impacted residents. Its goal: to shed a light on racial and class disparities that have made storm damage worse and recovery slower in North Carolina’s poorest and encourage those in power to reverse the trend and make those communities whole.

Bobby Jones of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition came from Goldsboro where, he said, “part of our community has been used as a dumping ground for Duke Energy’s 6 million tons of poisonous coal ash.” [Read more…]

**Bonus read: Legislature, Cooper make headway on hurricane recovery, but vexing longer-term issues loom

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Education

A community speaks but their voices go unheard

Photos by Sarah Montgomery

Eric Hall, previous ISD Superintendent reassures community members that their concerns will be addressed (Carver Heights Elementary Oct 8th, 2018)

Last week, almost 200 parents, educators, community members and supporters, gathered at Carver Heights Elementary school in response to an invitation by leaders from the Innovative School District (ISD).  Their representatives came to deliver the news that the school had been included on a short list of schools under consideration for inclusion in the controversial school improvement model, which might shift control from the locally-elected School Board to an outside, for-profit charter school operator.

Despite a stark lack of evidence for this model’s success and its dismal track record for transforming high needs schools in other states, representatives seemed to offer little to no alternatives to what they proposed was needed: an ISD takeover.

Although the meeting’s invitation pledged to allow community members a chance to provide feedback and engage in a “conversation,” it seemed apparent to those who had gathered that the stated intent was misleading. Rather than invite community members to discuss the school’s needs and share what seems to be working well, the ISD representatives started their presentation by presenting test scores that painted a picture of “failing” students, an “under-performing” school and offered inclusion in the ISD as the only possible solution.  These labels landed heavily upon the school’s educators, who had joined the event all wearing their yellow Carver Heights shirts, displaying the message: “Talk to Me, I will Listen, Teach Me, I will Learn, Inspire Me, I will Succeed.”

Community members also struggled to process the decision-making timeline presented: one of the schools being considered would be selected within a week’s time.

Why the Rush?

Cultivating good leadership, building trust and school improvement strategies takes time to develop. Trust and time is precisely what the school’s community asked ISD representatives to provide. Read more

Education, News

North Carolina officials choose struggling Wayne County elementary for controversial takeover program

Officials in North Carolina’s controversial takeover initiative, the Innovative School District, have selected a struggling Wayne County school — Carver Heights Elementary — to be the second addition to the program in 2019.

A spokesman for the ISD, David Prickett, confirmed the news Tuesday morning, adding that an official announcement was forthcoming. Leaders in the Wayne County school system were notified Monday, Prickett said.

The Goldsboro elementary school earned an “F” grade and did not meet state growth expectations in 2016-2017, according to its N.C. report card.  But the school serves an extraordinarily high level of economically disadvantaged students — about 90 percent — a population that tends to struggle academically.

Carver Heights was one of six schools that made a final list for consideration this fall, chosen because of their academic marks.

The selection will require the approval of the State Board of Education.

Leaders and supporters of the takeover program held a town hall with Wayne County residents last week and received a rocky reception from some vocal opponents.

Critics say the unproven program, which allows for charters and other private groups to seize control of a struggling public school, amounts to experimenting with predominantly low-income, students of color.

Similar models have been met with lackluster results and public outcry in states like Tennessee and Michigan.

But supporters say it’s an innovative approach for schools that have long struggled. Republican lawmakers advanced the takeover model, once called the “achievement school district,” in 2016, with support from a wealthy school choice backer behind a growing charter network.

Officials with the ISD tapped a Robeson County school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary, for the program last year. Ethical questions about the nonprofit established to run the school have troubled the initiative.

The program is expected to select up to five schools over the next few years, although Carver Heights will be the only recommended addition in 2019, Prickett said.

Leadership with the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), which advocates for teachers across the state, have been openly critical of the state-run district.

Indeed, NCAE President Mark Jewell slammed the news in a statement Tuesday.

“The Innovation School District is an unproven and unaccountable takeover scheme that does nothing to improve student achievement,” Jewell said. “Having for-profit companies take over public schools will do nothing but rip our communities apart.  I was just in Wayne County last week and parents, educators, and our communities have been making it loud and clear that they do not want this.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Education, News

Some welcome news for schools damaged by Hurricane Florence

Governor Roy Cooper has directed $25 million from the North Carolina Education Lottery Fund to help speed repairs to K-12 public schools damaged by Hurricane Florence in September.

The governor’s press office issued details in a statement Monday afternoon:

“Students need to get back to learning and educators need to get back to teaching, but many school districts can’t afford the repairs schools need,” Gov. Cooper said. “The lives of thousands of students, teachers and families are on hold and they need our help to recover.”

While many schools have reopened since Hurricane Florence struck last month, seven North Carolina school systems remain closed, keeping more than 130 schools out of operation and nearly 90,000 students out of class. Several affected school districts have depleted most of their contingency funds and need immediate financial assistance to repair roofs, flooring and electrical wiring, eradicate mold and mildew and replace furniture to get schools reopened.

The emergency funds will be administered by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Priority will be given to district and charter schools in Brunswick, Craven, Duplin, Jones, New Hanover, Onslow, Pender and Robeson counties that have immediate repair needs and are not currently in operation.

Some of the repairs should be reimbursable by federal disaster recovery funds. Transferring the money now gives schools quicker help and allows them to retain contractors to speed repairs.

Legislators return to Raleigh next week in a special session devoted to long-term recovery needs from the storm.

In Pender County, Topsail High School staff have been assisting with clean-up efforts at Cross Creek. (Photo: Pender County Schools Facebook page)

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Superintendent Mark Johnson’s new website may have broken North Carolina law

A controversial website touting Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson may have broken North Carolina law, a Policy Watch investigation has found.

That’s because Johnson’s publicly-funded site launched last month without vetting by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), an agency that, under state law, is expected to review the financing and contracts for any state agency web page.

No such review was conducted for Johnson’s site, according to Bill Holmes, Director of Legislative and Public Affairs for DIT. [Read more]

** BONUS READ: Gov. Cooper names three to State Board of Education

2. Whistling past the graveyard: Conservatives ignore Florence’s dire warnings for NC

If there’s been a single most maddening public narrative to accompany the hurricane disaster that has afflicted so much of North Carolina in recent weeks, it probably has to be the chipper, upbeat tone adopted by a number of conservative politicians and think tankers that Florence was, in effect, just “business as usual” for a state located on the nation’s southeast coast.

The spiel usually goes something like this: “We’re used to hurricanes in North Carolina and to pulling together to rebuild. Between our public emergency responders and private charities, we know how to handle these kinds of situations.”

While certainly admirable on some superficial level (obviously, it’s important to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy), when you dig below the surface, it’s clear that there are some extremely problematic undertones to the “all is well” rap. [Read more]

** BONUS READ: N.C. lawmakers must change course to help rebuild from Florence and ensure resiliency

3. What’s next for for proven but underfunded hog buyout program after Florence?

Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Florence barreled ashore between Wilmington and New Bern with the ferocity of a tyrant. After unleashing 140 mile per hour winds and torrential rain along the coast, she began to mosey inland.

Then, pregnant with rain, she rested. Florence emptied her contents, and the varicose rivers ruptured their banks, leaking contaminants from hog waste lagoons, poultry operations, wastewater treatment plants, coal ash basins and hazardous waste sites into eastern North Carolina waterways.

This week at the governor’s behest, the legislature convened a special session to appropriate disaster relief funds to help communities recover after Hurricane Florence. [Read more]

4.  Lawmakers plan on long game for Hurricane Florence recovery measures

Bipartisanship has become rare in North Carolina, but lawmakers put their differences aside Tuesday to take their first step toward helping those impacted by Hurricane Florence.

“It was really nice to experience collegiality in the legislative chambers and the sort of lack of partisanship,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “That was kind of refreshing.”

She and several other Democrats recognized that the two disaster recovery bills that passed unanimously were small first steps in taking care of what the state actually needed. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bills into law Wednesday afternoon. [Read more]

5. Misogyny, racism on full display in Kavanaugh confirmation process

With a president who’s been promising to overturn Roe v Wade and re-criminalize abortion since he started campaigning, those who believe in reproductive freedom are naturally skeptical that any nominee he chooses from his list is going to leave any precedent in place that supports access to abortion.

Anti-abortion extremists have consolidated almost enough federal power to do so, and are now working to tilt the balance of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe completely, and, in the meantime, make abortion access so restrictive that virtually no one can access abortion safely or easily. And Brett Kavanaugh, having already ruled that the U.S. government preventing a young immigrant from getting an abortion—even after she met all of the requirements set out by the state of Texas—is not an undue burden, seems their guy to do it. [Read more]

6. Editorial Cartoon: “I like Burr…and Tillis too!”