Higher Ed, News

Students rally at UNC-Chapel Hill in wake of “Silent Sam” settlement

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill plan to protest today at the former site of the Silent Sam Confederate monument — a response to last week’s announcement that the UNC System will give the toppled statue to the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, along with $2.5 million.

The protest, organized by the UNC Black Congress and UNC Black Student Movement, will begin at 1 p.m. at McCorkle Place, where the statue stood for more than 100 years before it was torn down by protesters last August.

Students, lawyers and community members are vowing the fight the settlement.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Undergraduate Executive Branch issued a statement last week condemning the agreement. Ashton Martin, undergraduate student body president, expanded on that in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

“What I’ve heard across campus this week is that students feel giving money of any amount really to an organization like this really just legitimizes their position,” Martin said. “It shows the university is backing down and saying we see this organization as something we’re afraid of. I don’t like that.

Martin said she and other students were also frustrated that they were told the university was in a holding pattern on the statue’s future but that student and community input would be important to deciding its future.

In fact, as revealed in an email from Sons of Confederate Veterans leader Kevin Stone to his group members, UNC Board of Governors members and state legislators had been working and negotiating with the group for months on what became the final agreement.

“As someone who’s been very involved with this issue to hear about this resolution the day before Thanksgiving, with no prior knowledge… it’s been frustrating,” Martin said. “And it’s becoming more frustrating as more information becomes available,”

Last week Interim UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent a brief message to students saying that the UNC System had announced the settlement, offering his “deepest appreciation” to the UNC Board of Governors for resolving the matter.

Martin said she and other student leaders have talked with Guskiewicz this week.

“He gathered a lot of people who had a lot of strong opinions about it and let us say our piece about it,” Martin said. “But I think the entire campus doesn’t really know what to believe and who knew what when on this. And the timing is terrible. It’s the last week of class. There are exams coming up. It’s really not conducive to getting anything done.”

The UNC System has yet to answer questions from Policy Watch regarding the details and timeline of the settlement, including basic explanations of how the $2.5 million trust will be structured.

In the letter to his fellow Sons of Confederate Veterans, Stone suggested the group would use the money to preserve the statue — but also part of it for a group headquarters. That would seem at odds with specific language in the settlement documents outlining that the money was to be used for the benefit of the statue.

“There are a lot of things about his letter that don’t seem to match up with how it was explained to us,” Martin said. “It’s hard to know what to believe at this point.”

Education

State appeals court rules lawsuit against former leader of defunct Kinston Charter Academy can proceed (Updated)

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error in the original version which indicated that the trial court had ruled that defendant Ozie Hall was liable for damages. In fact, no such ruling has yet been made. Rather, the trial court ruled (and the Court of Appeals affirmed) that the lawsuit demanding such damages can proceed. We regret the error.] 

A State Court of Appeals panel has ruled there’s “insufficient evidence” to determine whether a former Kinston charter school operator can claim “public official immunity” in defense of charges that he misused public money.

As a result, a Wake County Superior Court ruling stands holding that a lawsuit against Ozie Hall, the former CEO of now-defunct Kinston Charter Academy, can proceed.

“We merely conclude that, at the pleadings stage, the record contains insufficient evidence to determine whether Hall is entitled to assert public official immunity and, if so, whether Hall’s actions amounted only to negligence,” the panel ruled in court documents filed Dec. 3. “Thus, the trial court did not err by denying Hall’s motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).”

Hall sought to have the claims dismissed under Rule 12 (b)(6), which allows a court to dismiss a complaint before the development of a proceeding.

Click here to read the full opinion.

The appeal stemmed from a 2016 complaint by the state alleging that Hall, his wife Demyra McDonald-Hall, who served as board chairwoman, and Kinston Charter violated the North Carolina False Claims Act (NCFCA) and the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act (UDTPA) by inflating enrollment estimates to receive state money to educate students they did not serve.

The case dates to August 2013 when Kinston Charter received more than $666,000 in state money after reporting a projected enrollment of 366 students.

Charter schools and traditional public schools receive state money based on average daily membership, which is essentially the number of students served.

Kinston Charter’s actual enrollment in early September 2013 was 189 and it closed just days later, leaving students scrambling to find new schools and teachers new jobs.

In 2016, then-attorney general Roy Cooper, now the state’s governor, sued Hall, McDonald-Hall and Kinston Charter on behalf of North Carolina.

“Charter schools receive taxpayer dollars to educate students and they have a duty to spend them wisely,” Cooper told area media at the time. “There are many excellent charter schools but North Carolina needs more tools to protect families who choose charter schools.”

The lower court eventually dismissed all UDTPA claims against McDonald-Hall, Hall and Kinston Charter. Claims against Hall in his official capacity as CEO of the school were also dismissed.

But the trial court denied Hall’s motion to dismiss the NCFCA claim against him in his individual capacity.

In the appeal, Hall argued that the trial court was in error when it denied his motion to dismiss the charges because, as an individual, he is immune from liability under NCFCA.

“Specifically, Hall contends that he should not be considered a ‘person’ for purposes of the Act because he is a public official and is entitled to public official immunity,” the panel wrote. “At this stage of the proceedings, viewing the material allegations of the State’s complaint as admitted for purposes of the motion to dismiss, we conclude that there is insufficient information in the record to determine if he is entitled to public official immunity to defeat the State’s claim.”

In addition to affirming the lower court order denying dismissal of claims against Hall, the appeals court reversed the lower court’s order, which had denied dismissal of NCFCA complaints against Kinston Charter. It also denied Hall’s petition for writs of certiorari, which would have required the lower court to hand over case records to the appeals court for further review.

The three-judge panel included Judge Philip Berger Jr., Judge Richard Dietz and Judge Donna Stroud. The panel’s opinion was written by Berger.

The NCFCA was signed into law in 2009 by then governor Bev Perdue.

Like the federal False Claims Act, the act allows private individuals to file a lawsuit against a person or business for submitting or causing the submission of false claims to the state. People or businesses that become aware of mistakenly submitted claims and fail to submit repayment can also be held liable under the act.

Education

State senate education committee leader will not seek re-election

Sen. Rick Horner, R-Johnson, Nash, Wilson

On Monday, the opening of the filing period for the 2020 General Election brought news from a key Republican senator who announced he will not seek re-election.

In a Facebook posting, Rick Horner,  chairman of the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee, cited the frequently changing shape of District 11, which covers Nash, Johnston and Wilson counties, for his decision.

“Unfortunately, District 11 has changed shape three times in three elections and the 2020 Census is certain to bring yet another change,” Horner said. “Much to my regret, it simply is not in the best interest of my family to seek re-election in 2020.”

Horner was elected to lead District 11 in November 2016.

In the past weeks, several members of the GOP have announced they will not seek re-election, including Senate majority leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican who has served eight terms.

Brown said he plans to focus on his business and family.

Both Brown and Horner have been influential players in the GOP-led General Assembly. Brown as a key budget writer and Horner led the Senate’s pivotal education committee.

The GOP could also lose Rep. Craig Horn, co-chairman of the House Education Committee, if he decides to run for state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Sen. Rick Gunn of Burlington and Rep. Debra Conrad of Winston-Salem have also announced that they will not seek another term.

And on the Democratic side of the aisle, Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. of Durham will resign to serve on the state Utilities Commission and Rep. MaryAnn Black, also of Durham, has announced she will not seek re-election.

The filing period ends at noon on Dec. 20.

Education

Want to have a say in state testing reform? Take the survey.

High-stakes test reduction in North Carolina is one area Superintendent Mark Johnson and his critics have found common ground.

Still, Johnson is being peppered with criticism about the value and professionalism of a survey he has asked parents, teachers, administrators and the general public to take. The survey is designed to give stakeholders an opportunity to share thoughts about changes they’d like to see made to the state’s testing program.

Suzanne Parker Miller, a community organizer for N.C. Families For School Testing Reform, said the survey is flawed.

“My biggest problem with it, besides that its not professional work, is that it [the survey] automatically assumes there will be more online, tablet and computer testing, which is problematic because that is not the best testing method out there,” Miller said.

She noted that at least one question appears to be missing a word, which makes it difficult to interpret and answer.

“There’s one question that doesn’t read right,” Miller said. “I had to leave it blank because I couldn’t understand what they were asking. It’s just not professional.”

Here is the question Miller referenced:

Despite her concerns about the survey, Miller said she encourages everyone to answer the one question that gives respondents an opportunity to comment.

“Absolutely take it, absolutely respond and give honest feedback,” Miller said.

The survey asks slightly different questions depending on whether the respondent identifies as a parent, teacher, administrator or member of the general public.

Miller said she took the survey for parents and was forced to leave many of the questions blank because she couldn’t answer them.

Meanwhile, Johnson had this to say about the survey in a mass email:

“We want your input for the creation of this new program. Too often in education, leaders don’t ask teachers what they think before designing new education initiatives. Not for this program.

We are designing this from the classroom up, not the state bureaucracy down.

Our accountability professionals created this survey so that we can get your guidance. Your answers will drive their work to take full advantage of our opportunity to completely transform our system of testing. Your responses are anonymous.”

North Carolina has made advances this year in reducing the number of standardized tests students must take.

Over the summer, North Carolina became one of four states the federal government gave permission to change the way it tests reading and math skills of elementary and middle-school students.

And Gov. Roy Cooper announced signed into law the “Testing Reduction Act of 2019,” which will reduce the number of state and local standardized tests students take and eliminate the N.C. Final Exams starting in the 2020-21 school year.

Such testing, the argument goes, has not improved student achievement, is an unreliable measure of students’ performance and is a waste of valuable instructional time.

Education

State Rep. Craig Horn likely to run for state superintendent

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, says he’s 80 % to 90 % percent sure he’s running for state superintendent.

“At this point, I’m planning on filing,” Horn said.

The filing period for most 2020 contests opens at noon on Dec. 2 and closes Dec. 20 at noon.

Before officially tossing his hat into the ring, Horn said he needs to be certain that he can make a difference, that his family supports the decision and that he can raise the $500,000 he thinks it will take to be successful.

“The question is, how much money can a down-ticket candidate raise given the demands at the top of the ticket,” Horn said.

He said presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial candidates at the top of the Republican and Democratic tickets will ultimately drive up the cost of advertisement, mailers and other campaign expenses for candidate’s down ballot.

Even as Horn prepares to launch a campaign for superintendent, he makes no secret of the fact that he thinks the state’s top educator should be appointed by the governor.

“It does not make good sense to elect a superintendent of instruction,” Horn said. “What does make good sense is to go out and hire the best possible person in the country for that job, not the most popular person, not the person who fills a political need.”

According to the National Association of Educators, 37 states appoint state superintendents. North Carolina is one of 13 state that elect superintendents

To date, Horn is one of two Republicans to publicly express interest in replacing GOP colleague Mark Johnson as superintendent. The other is Western Governors University chancellor Catherine Truitt.

Johnson, the first Republican elected to the post in a century, has announced plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2020. He wants to replace Dan Forest who is running for governor.

Six Democrats announced plans to run for superintendent but educational consultant and former teacher Amy Jablonski of Raleigh will not seek the post.

The remaining Democrats include:

  • Charlotte educator and activist Constance Lav Johnson,
  • Wake County school board member Keith Sutton,
  • Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at the College of Education at NC State University,
  • James Barrett, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member, and
  • Jen Mangrum, a clinical associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Greensboro who ran for a seat in the legislature last year against Senate leader Phil Berger.