News

Advocates warn budget’s K-12 grading reforms could harm schools, communities

Republican-authored state budget reforms to North Carolina’s school performance grading system have the potential to harm local schools and their communities, public education advocates are warning this week.

As Policy Watch reported on Tuesday, a controversial budget provision tucked into the state legislature’s now approved spending deal (page 68 of the bill) will, beginning in 2019-2020, convert the school grading system to a more stringent 10-point scale—rather than the current 15-point scale—and retain a much-maligned grading formula derived mostly by performance scores and not growth.

Currently, 80 percent of the grade is determined by performance, and 20 percent is determined by growth.

This week, Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA), which lobbies for districts’ central office leaders across the state, said K-12 leaders hope lawmakers will consider a formula that’s closer to a 50/50 split.

“If you’re moving children and you’re growing as far as your achievement, then good things are happening in that school,” said Joyce. “We think that should count for more.”

Meanwhile, the 10-point scale is likely to shift grades for a number of schools. Current law allows for a score of 85 to count as an “A.” However, the new grading system approved by the legislature sets the bar for an “A” at 90 or above.

“Suddenly a school is going to look like it’s performing a lot worse from one year to the next,” said Joyce. “That would be concerning to communities, to  parents, to businesses. It would negatively impact economic development. There’s nothing new happening at the school. It’s just a matter of how the state is grading.”

An earlier House version of the budget sought to maintain the 15-point scale and established separate grades for performance and growth, but it’s the Senate system that emerged from the legislature’s conference committee negotiations this week, much to the chagrin of school and district advocates.

While Joyce complimented a handful of provisions in the final legislative budget—including a boost in the funding cap for students with disabilities and more than $35 million in funding for principal and assistant principal raises—the association continued to push an overhaul of a grading system that they say unfairly stigmatizes struggling schools that are making gains.

The N.C. School Boards Association, which advocates for local boards of education at the legislature, criticized the reforms as well.

Leanne Winner is director of governmental relations for the NCSBA.

“The public education community has been asking for years for a more equal reflection of growth that we think paints a more accurate picture of what is actually going on in those schools,” Winner said. “If a child comes in two or three grades below their current grade level and makes a year and a half or two years worth of growth but still may not be at grade level, that is a yeoman’s amount of work for that teacher to accomplish.”

House lawmakers approved the budget for the third time Thursday, and it’s now bound for the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who’s been openly critical of the spending plan.

Environment

Update: DEQ posts map, permits and info about ongoing GenX investigation

This map shows where DEQ is sampling for the presence of GenX, an unregulated chemical, which Chemours has discharged into the Cape Fear River. GenX has been detected in public drinking water in Wilmington. (Map: NC DEQ)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality will test water from 12 locations in and near the Cape Fear River for GenX, an unregulated contaminant found in Wilmington’s drinking water.

The sampling sites include the Chemours outfall near Fayetteville, a well in Wrightsville Beach and water treatment plants in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties.

DEQ has posted a map as part of its new section devoted to the GenX investigation on the agency’s home page. Sampling results, which will be used to analyze drinking water safety, will also be posted here. A lab in Colorado and another at an EPA regional office in Research Triangle Park are testing the samples. Chemours, which manufactures Teflon-like materials that produce GenX, has agreed to pay for the analysis and sampling. Results could become available in a month.

Copies of the air quality, hazardous waste and wastewater discharge permits are also listed on the site. The wastewater permit expired on Oct. 31, but has been “administratively continued” until a new permit is issued. Chemours’s application for a renewed wastewater discharge permit is also listed on the DEQ site.

DEQ says it is also “pushing the EPA” for guidance on regulating GenX.

According to DEQ, the EPA is developing an updated health screening level for the chemical. State health department officials have said that the concentrations of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water present a “low risk” — although the levels are derived from Chemours’s own computer modeling and not actual sampling. However DHHS is reviewing available health data and asking the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on GenX’s health risks.

 

Environment

Former Wilmington mayor: “We’re here to express our outrage” over GenX contamination in drinking water, Cape Fear

Children are at particular risk for chemical exposure through drinking water. Not only are their bodies smaller and the chemical burden on them greater, but they also drink more water. Wilmington pediatrician Dr. David Hill told the crowd, “If you can find a safer source of drinking water, do so.” (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

J ust steps outside the door of the Coastline Conference Center in Wilmington, the Cape Fear River moseys on its last 35 miles of its journey to the Atlantic Ocean. But the 300-plus people inside the conference center no longer trust the Cape Fear as their source of clean drinking water.

GenX, an unregulated contaminant, has been detected in both the river and drinking water. The chemical can’t be removed using traditional water treatment methods.

Cape Fear River Watch hosted a GenX Community Forum on Wednesday night, where, former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson said, “we can express our fear, concern, worries and outrage.”

These emotions have troubled many Wilmington residents since June 7, when the Star-News reported the findings of a team of scientists including NC State University professor Detlef Knappe. That study, published in 2016, showed GenX had been detected in drinking water, with its upstream source being Chemours. A spinoff of DuPont, Chemours discharges GenX into the Cape Fear via the factory’s effluent.

If the river suffers, we suffer Click To Tweet

Gen X in the family of PFOA chemicals (perfluoroctanoic acids), a byproduct of manufacturing Teflon. PFOAs are widespread in the environment; they’re even present in house dust. Despite their ubiquitousness, GenX is classified as an “emerging contaminant” by the EPA. Emerging contaminants have not been independently tested for safety or toxicity; nor are they regulated. Its effects on human health are unknown. GenX is biopersistent, meaning it remains in the body, in this case, for an estimated one to three years.

“‘We don’t know’ is a tremendously unacceptable answer,” said forum panelist John Green, a local attorney.

Chemours has not sampled its discharge and instead used modeling to estimate levels of GenX. Based on 2013-14 data provided by Chemours, the state Department of Health and Human Services has determined that levels of 70,000 parts per trillion in drinking water presents a “low risk.” Although a safe level has not been established, the international threshold is 90 ppt; the EPA has set a “health advisory” for combined levels of PFOAs above 70 ppt.

UNC Wilmington professor Larry Cahoon, a forum panelist, is a biological oceanographer who specializes in water quality analysis and remediation. He emphasized that Knappe’s study indicated GenX is only one of several PFOAs in the Cape Fear. “It’s a cocktail,” he said.

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News

Ashe County sheriff investigates employees for trying to fulfill public info requests

Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan.

Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan is investigating three employees for trying to fulfill a public records request for text messages from his county-issued phone.

From a report from WBTV:

The request was the subject of a nearly ten-minute rant by Buchanan at a commissioners meeting in mid-April, weeks after the request was submitted.

“We don’t have time for this,” Buchanan told the commissioners of WBTV’s public records request in April. “Everything we have is (sic) public document but this takes away from all of our jobs; takes away from my job.”

The North Carolina Public Records Act makes nearly all records created by government officials and employees—which can be paper, electronic or another form—open to the public for inspection.

“The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people,” the statute reads.

Under the law, public records must be provided to those who request them “as promptly as possible.”

In his April speech before the commissioners, Buchanan acknowledged that he was subject to the public records act as sheriff.

“I have a cell phone that’s issued to me by the county. It’s a public record. Anybody could have that information,” Buchanan said. “I couldn’t care less if you grabbed what’s on my phone and put it out there.”

But WBTV has learned Buchanan’s office is investigating three county employees who attempted to retrieve Buchanan’s text message and provide them to WBTV in response to the station’s request.

Disclosure of the sheriff’s office investigation was made Monday afternoon by Ann Clark, who serves as the public records custodian and clerk to the board for the Ashe County Board of Commissioners.

Most recent controversies over police public records have had to do with footage from police body and dashboard cameras. The Ashe County matter, which deals with a firmly established public record, is well outside the norm even for this strange and often contentious area.