Education

Istation ordered to halt implementation of K-3 reading assessment tool in N.C. schools

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

This story has been updated to include statements from Ossa Fisher, president and COO of Istation. 

Istation must stop implementing its K-3 reading assessment program in North Carolina’s schools pending a review of the controversial process by which the company was awarded the state’s $8.3 million reading assessment contract.

That’s the word from the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT), which granted Amplify’s request for a stay in the disputed contract award to competitor Istation.

Amplify asked DIT to step in after Superintendent Mark Johnson rejected the firm’s appeal of his decision to award the contract to Istation.

The news of DIT’s ruling comes days before thousands of traditional calendar schools prepare to open their doors for the 2019-20 school year. Teachers across the state have already begun to train on the Istation assessment tool, which replaced Amplify’s mClass.

“This decision means that Istation must halt its implementation while the proceeding is pending with DIT,” said Amplify CEO Larry Berger. “We look forward to working with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DIT to ensure that all educators in the state have the critical opportunity to understand their students’ reading development at the beginning of the school year, just as they have in the past.”

Johnson said the stay would cause disruptions.

“I am disappointed in this stay as it sows unnecessary confusion for our educators just as the school year starts but am confident that the decision the State Board [of Education] and I made in support of a positive change will stand,” Johnson said.

He stood by his earlier claim that Istation is the “best reading diagnostic tool for teachers, students, and parents.”

“There were problems with the procurement process, but the final decision was fair, objective, and followed all rules, policies, and laws,” Johnson said. “This has been clearly detailed in a public letter.”

Meanwhile, Istation President and COO Ossa Fisher issued a statement late Wednesday saying the firm has not been asked to stop its work implementing Istation in North Carolina schools.

“Istation will continue the work we started in North Carolina this summer training teachers and helping students develop critical grade level reading skills for a successful school year,” Fisher said.

She said Istation was “legally and appropriately” awarded the contract by the DPI and remains confident the contract will be upheld in the legal process.

Many teachers have been critical of the switch from mClass to Istation.

They have also questioned the process by which the contract was awarded, contending Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

But Johnson claims the process was tainted. He contends, among other things, that some committee members breached confidentiality on the procurement process and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify.

N.C. Families For School Testing Reform and the N.C. Association of Educators have asked Attorney General Josh Stein, State Auditor Beth Wood to take a look at the process used to award the contract.

Commentary, News

News report: Bipartisan “red flag” gun violence protection law working well in Florida

A National Public Radio news story broadcast this morning provides more compelling evidence that Florida’s so-called “red flag” law is working well to place roadblocks in the path of individuals prone to commit murder and/or suicide. The story reports that the bipartisan bill, which was passed in the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has resulted in more than 2,500 orders to temporarily remove weapons from the possession of potentially dangerous individuals. Judges have been issuing them at the rate of nearly five per day. This is from “Florida Could Serve As Example For Lawmakers Considering Red Flag Laws”:

Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff in Pinellas County, Fla., which has issued more than 350 risk protection orders, believes the red flag law is something Florida has needed for a long time. Before, even if someone was found to be mentally ill, he says police couldn’t take their guns. This law changes, and gives police a tool for dealing with people “that have said things, that have done things, exhibited behaviors that rise to the level of concern.”

Once the order is in place, Gualtieri says, “They can’t run out and buy guns, acquire guns. Because you’re prohibited from possessing, from owning or purchasing under a risk protection order. So, it’s a big deal.”

While the law is clearly not perfect — judges express concerns, for instance, about the challenge of issuing orders based on predictions of possible human behavior — the law gets good reviews in many places. what’s more, it became law without active opposition from the NRA.

The largest number of risk protection orders, more than 380, have been issued in Polk County, an area with no major cities and a population of some 700,000. Perhaps surprisingly, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is an outspoken supporter of gun rights.

“Yeah I’m a huge second amendment person,” Judd said. “I certainly believe those that are not mentally ill and have not had a felony conviction have the right to possess firearms.”

The NRA hasn’t actively opposed the red flag law here. Judd, a card-carrying member says the law requires a person to surrender their firearms to police or to a family member who agrees to keep them in a secure location. But it’s only temporary. For Judd, that’s an important distinction.

“The risk protection order does not allow the government to seize your firearms,” he said. “It’s more or less a cooling off period.”

While such a law is far from all that is needed, the experience in Florida ought to send a strong message to Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina that they can and should stop their blockade of a similar proposal by Durham state Rep. Marcia Morey.

Environment, Legislature

In the House, a major amendment to controversial Duke Energy rate-making bill hands the hot potato back to the Senate

Rep. Larry Strickland: “Not a lot of people want this bill outside of Duke Energy.”

A key provision in Senate Bill 559 was upended in the House Tuesday afternoon, which made the measure more palatable to opponents but added uncertainty to it future.

Colloquially known as the Duke Energy rate-making bill, it contained a controversial section that allowed the utilities commission to approve multi-year rate plans. Utilities could then avoid requesting rate hikes more often. While bill proponents in the legislature said it would add certainty to rate-making, there’s no guarantee that rates would decrease. If they increased, customers could be locked into higher bills for several years.

The amendment now require the Utilities Commission to study multi-year rate making and other methods. “Not a lot of people want this bill outside of Duke Energy,” said Rep. Larry Strickland, a Republican representing Harnett and Johnston counties. “We need a lot more discussion. This impacts small businesses, industry and families.”

The study would be due no later than March 1, 2020.

The amendment passed 63-51, which teed up the near-unanimous approval of the bill. After a 112-2 vote, the measure now returns to the Senate.

Section 1 of the bill allows Duke Energy to ask the Utilities Commission for permission to sell bonds to recover costs associated with storm damage. It has met no opposition. But with Section 2, and now the amendment, the fate of the bill in the Senate is uncertain. During committee hearings and on the Senate floor earlier in the session, several Democratic senators, including Mike Woodard of Durham County, suggested peeling off the controversial section into a study bill. Sen. Ralph Hise, a bill co-sponsor, quickly quashed the proposal.

The bill has been tweaked several times to attempt to assuage concerns from industry and consumer advocates that Duke could use alternative rate-making to “milk profits from customers,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, who supports the measure.

The original bill contained “earnings bands.”  The banding portion of a multi-rate plan would allow the Utilities Commission to establish a return on investment — a profit — for the utility that acts as a midpoint; from there, the commission also would set a low- and high-end range — a band — for profitability. This provision would require Duke Energy to refund to customers any profits above 1.25 percent on its rate of return.

Bill sponsors changed the bill so that profits from the middle and top of earnings bands were directed to projects like affordable housing.

Thirty-five states have enacted alternative rate-making mechanisms, but they differ in their approach and success. “Let’s not make mistake Virginia made,” Strickland said, “which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in overcharges.”

Lewis opposed the amendment. “Why study something that merely gives the Utilities Commission the option. It’s redundant to study whether they would like to have the option. The amendment is damaging to the bill.”

A study is beyond the scope of the Utilities Commission, said Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican. “This is a confusion of checks and balances. Their role is not to enact a study but to carry out policy.”

Bill proponents often touted that the measure had bipartisan support because it Democrat Dan Blue of Wake County is a co-sponsor. However, there also has been bipartisan pushback.

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Cumberland County, said he could not support the multi-year rate-making portion of the bill. “It’s better than when it was introduced but it still has flaws.”

Szoka said he agreed the changing energy industry needs new methods for rate-making. Because of energy efficiency, the demand for electricity has decreased. “Rewarding a utility for building more [plants] is no longer viable,” Szoka said. I understand where impetus for Section 2 is coming from. But it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s utility-centered, not ratepayer-centered. The best alternative is a study.”

Environmental groups were pleased with Strickland’s amendment. Josh McClenney, North Carolina field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, issued a statement:

“This is how public policy should be made, with a thorough and open vetting by the public and by experts to understand the full impact on North Carolina families and businesses, not through Duke Energy writing its own bills and making deals with legislators behind closed doors. Regardless of what happens when the bill gets to the Senate, multi-year rate hikes should not be passed outside of broader utility regulatory reform.”

Molly Diggins, director of the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club urged the Senate to agree with the changes. “There are many utility rate-making tools that could benefit the environment and customers that were not included in this bill because it was crafted by and for the utility, not the public.”

News

Students, community celebrate one year without “Silent Sam” Confederate monument

Hundreds gathered on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill to celebrate the first anniversary of the toppling of the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam.”

Hundreds of students and community members gathered Tuesday night to celebrate the first anniversary of the toppling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Anti-racist activists led the large assembled crowd from Peace and Justice Plaza to McCorkle Place, where they stopped at the former site of the Confederate monument, took a moment of silence at the Unsung Founders memorial honoring the Black labor — slave and free — that helped build the university and called for the removal of the names of slave holders and white supremacists from university buildings at the Old Well.

“We celebrate not only the toppling of a symbol but the toppling of white supremacy,” Raul Arce Jimenez told the crowd at the now barren site that was once the home of “Silent Sam.”

Jimenez is still facing charges in the toppling of the statue.

“What used to be here doesn’t need to be here,” Jimenez said to applause. “So today we celebrate, as we did last year when it came down, the absence of a symbol of white supremacy. This symbol stood for more than a hundred years, glaring down on black and brown students as they walked by. It stood here to welcome students and visitors. But I ask, ‘Who felt welcome as they walked by this statue? Who felt accepted as they walked by the grotesque reminder that people fought so people could not be free?’ It was a symbol of white supremacy and who tore it down?”

The crowd replied with shouts of “We did!”

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immigration, News

Legislature sends immigration bill to Cooper; scores of nonprofits and businesses call for veto

The state House of Representatives gave final approval this afternoon to legislation that would force local sheriffs to hold individuals that they would otherwise release, based on “detainer” requests from federal immigration officials. The House vote was 62-53.

Proponents say the bill is necessary to aid law enforcement in protecting public safety, but opponents have argued forcefully that it will have the opposite effect. After the bill passed the ACLU of North Carolina released a statement calling on Gov. Cooper to veto the measure accompanied by endorsements from scores of national and state-level nonprofits and state-based businesses.

RALEIGH – More than 70 national organizations, 40 North Carolina groups, and 80 North Carolina businesses are urging Governor Roy Cooper to veto a bill that would force all North Carolina county sheriffs to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in detaining and deporting community members or face removal from office.

In separate letters, the organizations say the bill would harm North Carolinians by spreading fear within immigrant communities, further accelerating the federal government’s deportation machine, and subverting the will of the voters.

House Bill 370, which has been approved by both chambers of the General Assembly, would require county jails to comply with a request from federal immigration officers to hold someone in jail, even if they are eligible for release under North Carolina law. So-called “ICE detainer requests” often lack probable cause and can lead to the prolonged detention of people without a court order, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

“By vetoing this brazen attack on North Carolina’s sheriffs and voters who have made it clear they do not want ICE terrorizing their communities, Governor Cooper can send an important message that he supports both local law enforcement and the rights of all communities,” said Susanna Birdsong, Senior Policy Counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, one of the groups urging Cooper to veto. “This dangerous bill strips local law enforcement of their ability to make decisions in the best interest of public safety, forcing every county in North Carolina to divert resources to do the bidding of President Trump’s deportation force whether they want to or not. Governor Cooper should put a stop to this extreme agenda, stand up for local law enforcement, and veto this bill without delay.”

In a separate letter to Cooper, the ACLU of North Carolina explained the constitutional concerns with requiring sheriffs to unconditionally comply with all detainer requests received from ICE, whose history presents a troubling pattern of illegal arrests.

Last year, voters in North Carolina’s two largest counties – Mecklenburg and Wake – elected sheriffs who campaigned on promises, now fulfilled, to end their involvement in the federal 287(g) program, a partnership with federal immigration officers that has led to the deportation of thousands from North Carolina. Newly elected sheriffs in Buncombe, Forsyth, Guilford, and Durham counties have also announced that they will no longer hold people in jail on ICE detainer requests.

“If Governor Cooper allows this anti-immigrant bill to become law, it will spread more fear across our communities, tear apart families, and force local governments to divert resources to fuel the Trump administration’s deportation pipeline,” said Martha Hernandez, community organizer with Comite de Accion Popular. “It’s important that our state’s highest elected official take a stand for the rights of North Carolina communities and against this extreme anti-immigrant political agenda.”

The full list of groups signing each letter is: Read more