Groups with ties to Innovative School District head seeking state contracts for charter takeovers

Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall

Two groups seeking state contracts to run struggling North Carolina schools have professional ties to the man who may ultimately steer the decision to hire them, N.C. Policy Watch has learned.

According to documents obtained by Policy Watch, AMIKids Inc. and Communities in Schools (CIS) of Robeson County are two of eight organizations that have filed notices of intent to apply for contracts in the Innovative School District (ISD), a controversial reform program that could allow for-profit school operators to assume control of operations and staffing in lagging public schools for at least five years.

Until he accepted the role of ISD superintendent this year, Hall was the president and CEO of Communities in Schools of N.C., the state affiliate for CIS of Robeson County, an organization that specializes in dropout prevention with struggling kids. Before that, Hall also worked for more than seven years as national director for AMIKids, a Florida-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youth and non-traditional schools in a number of southern states.

Hall, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, is expected to make recommendations to the State Board of Education in the coming months on which organizations should receive contracts for the takeover district.

Yevonne Brannon, board chair for Public Schools First N.C., a public school advocacy group that’s been critical of the proposal, said she believes members of the public may question Hall’s ability to provide a fair evaluation of the two organizations. Credible assessment will be needed of any group that takes the reins in an ISD school, she added, given the controversy surrounding the proposal and the middling results of a similar charter takeover program in Tennessee.

“When there’s an appearance of a conflict of interest, it might jeopardize the integrity of the program,” said Brannon.

Representatives for AMIKids Inc. and CIS of Robeson County did not immediately return phone calls Thursday.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, said he did not know organizations with prior ties to Hall were in the running for the contracts, but he expressed confidence in Hall’s ability to be objective.

“He’s very careful,” said Cobey. “I couldn’t imagine him doing anything that wouldn’t be right or straight.”

Cobey added that he has “great trust” in Hall. “He’s done a great job of implementing a piece of legislation that’s difficult to implement.”

Hall is expected to recommend one or two schools to join the ISD as soon as Friday, with the State Board of Education slated to hold a vote in December.

Meanwhile, Hall’s office will accept groups’ applications for state contracts until Nov. 15. He’s expected to make a recommendation to the state board weeks later, with the board likely to award the contract or contracts in early 2018.

Interest from at least one organization with connections to the state legislature and an influential school choice booster from Oregon has already spurred some scrutiny this week.

Prospective ISD schools have performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide, and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the prior three years.

As of Thursday, Hall was down to a shortlist of four that included schools in Robeson, Durham, Nash and Northampton counties. In Durham and Nash, local leaders have been vocal opponents, although the reception has been somewhat warmer in Robeson.

Veteran educator James Ellerbe appointed superintendent of state’s Innovative Schools District

James Ellerbe

Superintendent Mark Johnson didn’t waste much time naming a new superintendent for the state’s Innovative School District (ISD).

On Thursday, Johnson announced that James Ellerbe will replace LaTeesa Allen as superintendent of the school district created to help turnaround low-performing schools.

Allen’s last day on the job was June 28. N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) officials have not shared any details about her departure. She was appointed to the post only nine months ago.

One of Ellerbe’s first task will be to find a principal for the ISD’s only school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County.

Bruce Major abruptly resigned July 1 after a year on the job.

Ellerbe comes to NCDPI from the Center for Responsive Schools where he served as director of administration and Strategy.

Ellerbe has been a teacher and a principal in North Carolina public schools. He’s served at NCDPI in numerous roles including interim director of district and regional support and as a district transformation coach.

Johnson also named Robert “Bo” Trumbo director of the Center for Safer Schools.

According to the press release, Trumbo comes to NCDPI after a distinguished career as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

His duties included investigative responsibilities as well as protective assignments; a 5-year tour with the Presidential Protective Division and Counter Assault Team.

Trumbo also held numerous supervisory assignments during his stint with the Secret Service.

On Thursday, Trumbo emphasized the importance of working in partnership with local school districts.

“Hopefully, we can become a clearinghouse, a resource to support districts,” Trumbo said.

He replaces Kym Martin, the wife of former North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin.  Judge Martin resigned in February to become dean of Regent University law school in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“I am pleased that we are able to add both of these individuals to our team here at DPI,” Johnson said in a statement. “They are uniquely qualified and bring valuable experience to these two important positions. I look forward to working with each of them in their new roles.”

School calendar flexibility gets nod in House Education Committee

A flood of bills granting school districts calendar flexibility received favorable hearings Tuesday from the House Education K-12 Committee.

Districts want the flexibility to start the school year earlier, one wants to start as early as August 1, and to close later to address learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State law currently allows schools to start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and to end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. There are exceptions for some schools such as charter schools, year-round schools and low-performing schools.

Meanwhile, other schools want flexibility to align district calendars with community colleges calendars to aid high school students enrolled in college coursework.

House Bill 77 seeks calendar flexibility for Moore County Schools. It  would help the district to accommodate golf tournaments.

“What makes this different for Moore County is that we have major golf tournaments,” said Rep. James L. Boles, a Moore County Republican and bill cosponsor.

Moore County is home to the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club. The country club’s famous No.2 Course will host the U.S. Open in 2024.

School buses and parking lots are needed to host such events, Boles told the committee.

The school district usually receives exemptions every few years to accommodate major tournaments. HB 77 would give it permanent flexibility to adjust the calendar to adapt to them.

Support for the calendar bills was nearly unanimous. Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican, supports local calendar flexibility bills but voiced concern about those that apply statewide.

“Everyone is familiar with my attitude about the tourism industry and school calendar,” Iler said. “I think it should be labeled child abuse to send anybody back to school before Labor Day, and so, I’ll be abstaining or voting no on calendar bills.”

The state’s tourism industry has vigorously opposed allowing the school year to slip into months traditionally reserved for summer break. The N.C. Travel Industry Association wants families free during summer months to travel to state beaches, the mountains and attractions in between.

Louise Lee, founder and president of Save our Summers NC, a volunteer organization of parents, teachers and others who want to preserve a traditional school calendar, said lawmakers who spoke in favor of the calendar flexibility bills did so on behalf of superintendents and school boards.

“The piece that’s missing is who I’m representing; that is parents and teachers,” Lee said. “These people have been through enough this year without fighting once again just to preserve a somewhat traditional school calendar as a choice for families.”

Arguments to align school calendars to community college calendars and to set them up so students finish exams before winter breaks have been around for 17 years, Lee said.

“It is time to put these arguments to rest,” she said.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican, has filed a school calendar flexibility bill every year since 2013 when he began serving in the House.

“Those bills have never been heard,” Lambeth said.

He said the fact the bills received near-unanimous support in committee sends a message that the House supports allowing district officials to operate in a manner they believe is best for students.

Lambeth wants a list of schools operating on a traditional school calendar and one of the counties the bills will impact along with their school start and stop dates.

He also asked for a list of counties granted exceptions. Those include districts in the mountains that are allowed to start the school year early because they close frequently due to severe weather.

“I’d love to see all districts to give us a profile of where the state would look if we pass all of these bills through the House and Senate,” Lambeth said.

State health officials say expansion of COVID-19 testing in schools would help slow infections

State health officials want to expand testing for COVID-19 in school districts as more students, teachers and staff return to classrooms this month.

Officials are focusing on “screen testing,” which is done on a regular basis, usually weekly, as opposed to diagnostic testing performed on individuals who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

“We do have some evidence from national studies that the weekly testing of students, teachers and staff can reduce in-school infections by an estimated 50%,” Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS), said Thursday.

Perry’s comments came during a State Board of Education meeting where she announced plans to apply for a share of $10 billion in federal money President Joe Biden’s administration earmarked for to help schools expand COVID-19 testing for students, teachers and staff as part of the effort to help schools reopen full-time for in-person instruction.

The money is part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes $122 billion for K-12 schools.

“These screening tests provide another layer of mitigation and protection, another tool in the tool box that we are strongly recommending that schools and districts consider implementing and we’re going to try to make that process easier for schools moving forward,” Perry said

Aditi Mallick, director of the state’s COVID-19 Operations Center, said the federal money will allow NCDHHS to move to Phase 3 of its testing program for K-12 school, which expands testing to more schools across the state.

Phase 1 was a pilot program utilizing diagnostic testing at selected schools. It ran from December 2020 through February 2021. Phase 2 began in March and included diagnostic testing and screen testing.

More than 63,255 tests were distributed to school districts, charter schools and private schools during Phase 2. Of testing results reported to NCDHHS, 181 of 1,213 were positive. Results were limited because some districts reported them to local health departments and NCDHHS were unable to determine whether those result were from schools or other settings.

“Our sincere hope is that schools will be excited to take advantage of this opportunity, and certainly the infusion of new funding helps solve for potential historical barriers of staffing or reporting or availability of tests,” Mallick said, noting that participation will be optional for districts.

Districts will have three screen testing options, Mallick said.

They will be able to contract with a NCDHHS approved vendor for testing. The vendor will be named by fall 2021.

NCDHHS will also provide free screening tests or diagnostic tests to schools that request them or districts can develop their own approach to testing without state involvement.

The move to expand testing comes as infection rates have plateaued or increased slightly across all age groups except residents 65 or older in which case rates are declining.

Currently, there are 45 active clusters in schools, which is a 30% decline from last month. Thirty-four clusters are at public schools and 11 at private schools.

As of April 4, there has been 1,840 infections associated with K-12 clusters. Students made up 1,205 case and staff 635.

Perry said the state cannot let its guard down.

“We are seeing rising numbers in other parts of the country and across the world,” she said. “We know that this virus is still very much out there and new more infectious variants are spreading and we all need to continue to be careful and responsible as we race to get North Carolinians vaccinated.”

Senate bill would increase maximum amount families receive for school vouchers

In a move that’s sure to spark controversy, Senate Republicans on Wednesday filed a bill to increase school voucher awards by $2,300.

Parents use state vouchers to help pay tuition at private and religious schools. Currently, families can receive awards of up to $4,200. Senate Bill 671 would push the maximum award to $6,500.

Sens. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee, sponsored SB 671.

“It’s clear that after a year of being forced into ‘virtual learning’ working-class families want a bigger say in their child’s education and Opportunity Scholarships can give them back their voice,” Lee said in a statement.

The bill would increase income eligibility from 150% to 175 % of the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

“Under this bill, a single mother making less than $56,400 would be eligible to receive an Opportunity Scholarship for her child,” according to a statement posted on Senate leader Phil Berger’s website.

The bill also combines the Special Education Scholarships for Students with Disabilities and Personal Education Savings Accounts. The two would become the Personal Education Student Accounts for Children with Disabilities.

SB 671 comes in the wake of House Bill 32 that would substantially expand eligibility for school vouchers by no longer requiring voucher recipients to be enrolled in a public school unless they are entering kindergarten or first grade.

HB 32 would also increase the value of vouchers by setting the maximum award at 70% of the state average pupil allocation in the prior fiscal year for the 2022-23 school year, then raising the maximum award to 80% of the state average pupil allocation in the 2023-24 school year and beyond.

The state average per public allocation is currently $6,585, so the maximum voucher award would be more approximately $4,610 next school year at 70% of the state average.

“The changes would funnel taxpayer funds to increasingly subsidize payments to families who were already planning to enroll in private schools,” Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the NC Justice Center’s Education and Law Project wrote in February. “The bill is estimated to cost the state $159 million over the next nine years.”

Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2020 budget proposal would have effectively killed the voucher program by cutting it by $85 million to help pay for other education and teacher support programs.

Cooper has said the voucher program lacks accountability.

Ballard said Cooper wants to deny low-and middle-income families a chance to attend better schools.

“Gov. Cooper is withholding access to educational opportunities, ensuring that private education is only accessible to the wealthy,” she said. “For all the talk about equity and fairness, ending the Opportunity Scholarship program would only hurt the students Gov. Cooper claims to care about the most.” 

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay part of the tuition at a private school. The State Education Assistance Authority handed out 12,284 vouchers to private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

The program has been a target of criticism by public school advocates who complain it allows private schools to siphon money from underfunded public schools.

The N.C. Association of Educators and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in July charging that the state’s Opportunity Scholarships operates with little state oversight and that some schools benefiting from the program discriminate based on religion and sexual orientation.