Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

Class size omnibus passes easily, despite stiff opposition to Board of Elections, Atlantic Coast Pipeline provisions

Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

An omnibus bill alleviating some of the headaches associated with North Carolina’s class size crisis easily passed the state House by a 104-12 margin Tuesday, despite continuing opposition from top Democrats on its controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Board of Elections provisions.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who helped to assemble last week’s compromise conference report on House Bill 90, said the bill gives districts “much requested” time to prepare for the state’s new K-3 class sizes by phasing in its caps on average and maximum class size over the next four years.

The legislation, which also creates a $61 million recurring funding allocation for arts, music and physical education teachers, comes after years of mounting pressure on the Republican-dominated General Assembly to either ease their 2016 class size mandate or provide additional funding to save those so-called “enhancement” teaching positions.

As Policy Watch has detailed, local school districts would need to cough up millions or lay off scores of enhancement teachers to find space for the necessary new K-3 classroom teachers.

The legislation also modifies eligibility requirements for the GOP-backed, controversial Personal Education Savings Accounts and purports to provide sufficient funding to clear the waiting list for the state’s widely-backed, Pre-K program.

Multiple Republicans insisted this week and last that the revised House Bill 90, which was crafted behind closed doors, was a “bipartisan” measure.

“We do not have to be separated on this,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, the Cabarrus County Republican who co-chairs the chamber’s education and budget committees.

Yet, while many Democrats ultimately voted for the conference report because of its class size fix, some components of the omnibus bill clearly rankled minority party members in the House and Senate.

One section seeks to control spending from a $58 million environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a fund that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office seeks to administer (Note: See the report today from Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg on the ACP).

Also, a separate portion seeks to merge state elections and ethics panels while curtailing Democrats’ majority on the appointed elections board. The N.C. Supreme Court struck down Republicans’ merger of the panels last month, and GOP lawmakers are seeking to author their own fix before it’s taken up by a lower court.

“This is a difficult vote to take, and it’s difficult because we’re voting on three separate matters,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat who dubbed the package a “kitchen sink bill.”

Democrats also chafed over a lack of school construction funding in the measure.

“This bill does not address the needs in education that we know, Republicans and Democrats both know, are so necessary right now,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat.

Legislative Republicans countered that K-12 infrastructure is historically a local government funding matter in North Carolina. However, state House members have widely supported a statewide $2 billion school construction bond referendum, which would address a portion of the state’s estimated $8 billion in K-12 capital needs, but Senate lawmakers have not taken up the matter.

“Like in all bills, there’s always more work to be done,” said Horn. “I’m looking forward to your support on that more work.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The bill will now proceed to Cooper’s office. Cooper seems likely to veto the bill due to its pipeline and elections portions, although the legislature has the votes to override the Democrat’s veto.

Some Democrats suggested Tuesday that, with state courts still deciding the fate of the legislature’s election board tinkering, the class size fix could be “held hostage” by the legal wrangling.

Rep. Darren Jackson, the House Democratic Leader, said the lack of a severability clause may nix the entire bill if courts find one portion unconstitutional, although a longtime General Assembly attorney cast doubt on that claim this week.


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Education, News

North Carolina teacher takes home national honors from National Education Association

Bobbie Cavnar

If you’re familiar with these pages, you know “good news” has been somewhat hard to come by in recent years. But here’s a respite: A North Carolina teacher is taking home a top honor for his work in a Gaston County classroom. 

From Ed NC:

Bobbie Cavnar teaches English at South Point High School in Belmont. In 2016-17, he was the North Carolina Teacher of the Year. He currently serves on the board of EducationNC.

On Friday night, February 9, 2018, at the NEA Foundation gala, Bobbie Cavnar won a big award.

The NEA Foundation website says, “In the evening’s nail-biting finale, Bobbie Cavnar, a 12th grade language arts educator from Belmont, NC, took home the top honor: the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence and $25,000!”

Cavnar’s classroom looks like a Victorian library. He describes teaching as 25 percent preparation, 75 percent pure theater. Cavnar says art is the way we learn to see each other, the way we learn to empathize.

Cavnar, who’s served as an adviser to the State Board of Education, has a reputation for his strong support of the state’s public schools and the arts.

Here’s a video detailing his particular style of teaching. The video premiered at last week’s NEA gala:

Courts & the Law, Education, News

Class size fix rolls through Senate, but Democrats denounce “Frankenstein’s monster” bill

North Carolina senators took a key step in delivering long-sought relief on a class size mandate to the state’s public school districts Friday, but Democrats denounced the “Frankenstein’s monster” bill for its inclusion of multiple partisan jabs at Gov. Roy Cooper.

The amended version of House Bill 90—which was rolled out Thursday and passed in the Senate Friday by a 37-5 margin—retains the “status quo” on K-3 class size caps in the coming year, and phases in reduced class sizes in the following three years.

Members of the state House of Representatives aren’t expected to consider the conference report until Monday or Tuesday.

The deal, which was negotiated behind closed doors in recent weeks, also budgets about $61 million in recurring spending on so-called “enhancement” teachers, the arts, music, language and P.E. teachers whose jobs were so imperiled by lawmakers’ 2016 mandate to slash K-3 class sizes.

“This bill gives us a reasonable pathway to smaller class sizes,” said Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Wake County Republican who says she was involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiating that yielded this week’s pact.

But Democrats admonished Republicans, arguing that without controversial provisions aimed at merging state elections and ethics boards and controlling how $58 million in Atlantic Coast Pipeline mitigation funds are spent, the legislation would have passed unanimously.

“What’s sad to me is somehow that’s not good enough for you,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat. “There has to be a divisive poison pill in everything that we do.”

Republicans are already mired in an ongoing court battle with Cooper over their effort to curtail his party’s majority on the Board of Elections, although the state Supreme Court ruled in Cooper’s favor last month.

The bill would add a ninth member to the panel unaffiliated with any party, but continues to seek an even party split on the remaining eight seats. Previously, the governor’s party was guaranteed a majority on the board.

The legislation’s other sticking point centered on GOP legislators’ effort to control how pipeline mitigation funds are spent. Cooper announced the creation of the fund, donated by energy companies that benefit from the pipeline, around the same time as the controversial pipeline got the green-light from his administration. The governor’s office says he will control the fund, although legislators say he has overstepped his authority.

Republicans have also accused Cooper of striking a “quid pro quo” deal with energy companies, providing pipeline permitting in exchange for the environmental mitigation cash, a charge Cooper denies.

Despite their criticism, most Senate Democrats voted for the proposal Friday. Yet those who did expressed heartburn about its hybrid approach to packaging multiple hot-button issues in one conference report.

“When you put these provisions in this bill in this manner in which it is, you make it unfair. You make it political,” said Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing multiple counties in eastern North Carolina.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, an Asheville Democrat, called the chamber’s overhaul of  the elections board “highly partisan and frankly insulting.”

Republicans countered that the legislation simply bundles together multiple pressing issues that needed to be addressed in a timely fashion by the legislature.

“I cannot see the reason why it has been demonized,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican representing several western North Carolina counties.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Republican who led class size negotiations for the GOP-dominated chamber, said dissenting Democrats were indicating greater loyalty to Cooper than the public schools.

“You can work yourself up, you can do the hyperbole,” said Barefoot. “This bill produces solutions for our students.”

Despite the back and forth, Democrats said Republicans were to blame for the long-running, class size consternation, claiming that GOP lawmakers ordered smaller K-3 classrooms without providing sufficient funding.

“This body set fire to our public schools and now we are the firefighters,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat. “You can’t be the arsonist and the firefighter at the same time.”

Education, News

House, Senate leadership push plan to ease North Carolina class size crisis

State House and Senate leaders in the N.C. General Assembly say they have a plan for easing North Carolina’s class-size tumult.

Senate and House K-12 leaders announced details at a press conference Thursday afternoon, rolling out a four-year, phase-in plan for the deal and $61 million in recurring funding for “enhancement” teachers—arts, music, world language and physical education teachers.

[Update] The changes were bundled into revisions of House Bill 90. The bill also seeks to seize control of an environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that is slated to be controlled by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. Furthermore, it delves into Cooper and the legislature’s ongoing battle over the State Board of Elections—both provisions that are likely to spur the ire of Cooper’s office.

The deal is said to retain the “status quo” for class sizes in the upcoming 2018-2019 school year. Advocates hope it will offer long-term assurances to head off the partisan clashes on K-3 classrooms that have dominated the last two years at the legislature.

“This has been one of the General Assembly’s top priorities for years,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican who co-chairs the Senate education budget committee. “From parents to legislators and even Gov. Cooper, I think it’s a goal that we all support.”

Lawmakers say they arrived at the deal after weeks of closed-door negotiations over the fate of North Carolina’s K-3 mandate, which began in 2016 when GOP legislators ordered local school districts to slash class sizes in the early grades.

Some Republican budget writers said they sought smaller classrooms, but a wave of criticism from Democrats, local districts and public school advocates urged action before school systems were forced to cough up millions or lay off potentially thousands of arts, music and P.E. teachers.

Such “specialty” or “enhancement” teachers were at risk because the state mandate, without additional state funding, would have left local leaders scrambling to find budget space to hire classroom teachers in the core subjects in order to reduce class sizes.

Advocates also warned that the directive would imperil Pre-K programs, pack classes in grades 4-12 and cost districts millions to find new classroom space. Legislators said the plan would end the state’s waiting list for its Pre-K program.

On Thursday, Barefoot called the class size crisis “one of the most difficult issues I’ve had to resolve as a legislator.”

The bill includes a dedicated funding stream for enhancement teachers, Republicans said. And while the “core” classroom teacher allotment will be restricted to that use, the enhancement teacher allotment can also be spent on classroom teachers, Barefoot said.

“Make no mistake, we are determined to lower average class sizes,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee. “That is a high priority for us, we’re pursuing that. We’re just going to stage it out, rather than doing it in one fell swoop.”

[Update] Members of a joint legislative budget committee approved the GOP-authored legislation—which includes a plan to relax some eligibility restrictions for Personal Education Savings Accounts—Thursday afternoon. Of particular import: The bill strips the requirement that an eligible recipient must have been a full-time student in a public school.

The controversial program provides a debit card for families of children with special needs to spend on private school enrollment.

Horn said the new guidelines were intended to address children with special needs who may not be full-time students, pointing out some children may only attend a traditional school setting half a day before departing for another facility.

“They fell through the cracks on that,” said Horn. “This solves that problem.”

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, helped to negotiate the fix, legislators said. On Thursday, Joyce called the bill a “viable solution.”

“We believe this phase-in period will provide the time needed for those important next steps,” said Joyce.

A Democratic-proposed resolution that would stave off class size cuts this year has yet to move in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, although Democrats who spoke to Policy Watch Thursday said it seemed likely that party members would vote for today’s GOP-written measure, despite its jabs at Cooper.

Meanwhile, legislative leadership, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, expressed support for the pact.

Moore called the deal a “great collaboration” between both chambers. “Schools are going to be even better off next year than they are this year,” he said.

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy group from Raleigh, said the legislation provides “badly-needed certainty” for districts. Poston also complimented lawmakers for their Pre-K provision.

“We applaud members of the General Assembly for putting forth legislation that invests more in early education learning and provides a reasonable pathway to realize lower class sizes in our public schools,” Poston said in a statement.

Updates as they become available.

Courts & the Law, Education, News

Supreme Court evaluating who has power over public schools — Board of Education or Mark Johnson

Determining who prevails in the power struggle between the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction Superintendent will boil down to semantics.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of House Bill 17, a GOP measure that transferred power from the Board to Superintendent Mark Johnson, a newly elected Republican.

There was a lot of discussion about what certain words or phrases in the state constitution and in House Bill 17 meant. Hardy Lewis, attorney for Johnson, hung his hat on the phrase “subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly” to show that lawmakers had power to reallocate power.

“The General Assembly has significant power to revise and limit even the expressed powers in the constitution,” he said.

Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice who represents the Board, said the General Assembly was seeking “unlimited and unprecedented control.”

“The General Assembly cannot give constitutional powers; it cannot reallocate powers,” he said.

Supreme Court justices asked a lot of questions about how far the General Assembly’s powers could go and what the real issue of the case was.

“I think the question that really is before the court is who is really the authority of the public school system?” Lewis said. “Is it the Board, are they the fourth branch of government? Or are there other equal and superior entities?”

Orr said he thought the core constitutional power of the board was to supervise, make rules and administer funds — it delegates to the superintendent, who is the chief administrative officer of the board.

“The whole concept was that the General Assembly couldn’t parcel out to whatever entity it chose or may create the powers that are supposed to be consolidated under the State Board,” he said.

Deputy Attorney General Olga Vysotskaya de Brito argued on behalf of the state and said HB17 didn’t take away the Board’s power. She explained that HB17 gives the Board “general” powers of supervision and Johnson has “direct” day to day powers of administration.

Each of their powers are to be as prescribed by law, she added.

“The General Assembly does not have the power to abolish the core functions of the Board but it does have the power to revise and limit,” she said.

Andrew Erteschik, another attorney for the Board, disagreed and said the HB17 was “not a nuanced piece of legislation.”

“The Board is in charge of the public school system,” he said. “HB17 says that the Board is not in charge of the public school system and that the Superintendent is in charge of the public school system.”

When asked about lawmaker’s legal presumption of constitutionality when it passes laws, Erteschik added that it was “out the window” when they copied and pasted a constitutional statute from one entity to another.

Supreme Court justices will decide the case at a later time. Chief Justice Mark Martin did not hear the case after previously recusing himself.