Education

Could smaller schools mean safer schools? One of the nation’s best teachers believes so

As the North Carolina General Assembly House Select Committee on School Safety meets again on Tuesday, one of the the America’s best public school teachers has several suggestions for improving safety.

Gaston County high school English teacher Bobbie Cavnar believes that smaller schools paired with more nurses and psychologists will enhance the safety of our classrooms.

Cavnar, named by the NEA Foundation as the nation’s top educator, recently discussed school shootings and making students feel safer with NC Policy Watch director Rob Schofield:

At today’s legislative hearing, members of the Student Physical Safety Working Group will hear from the:

  • Executive Director of the North Carolina Christian Schools Association
  • Former Chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Safer Schools Community
  • Development and Training Manager of the Center for Safer Schools
  • Sheriffs of Rockingham County and Carteret County

View the complete agenda here.

And be sure to listen to the full 20-minutes interview with Cavnar below in which he discusses his love of teaching and how he inspires students.

Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court weighs who’s to blame for “entrenched inequities” in Halifax County schools

Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan

Before the N.C. Supreme Court Monday, attorneys for both Halifax County and local parents seemed to agree on the lackluster state of school funding in the rural North Carolina county. In question, however, is who’s to blame for the so-called “entrenched inequities.”

The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in the crucial case of Silver et al vs. The Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which spun out of longstanding complaints of funding disparities and crumbling facilities in the eastern North Carolina county.

Those complaints were first heard in the state’s long-running Leandro case, which found the state had a responsibility to provide a “sound, basic education” to all children, regardless of locale.

Yet plaintiffs in the Silver case say the continued operation of three Halifax school districts—two with majority Black enrollment and one with majority white enrollment—exacerbates funding inequalities in the relatively low-income county.  Some—including State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey—have argued the small county would be best served by a single school system, although local officials have been ardently opposed to any mergers.

Parents in the North Carolina county say they want the courts to force a merger of the districts, although lower courts thus far have ruled against them, finding instead that, with the State Board of Education having final say over local district mergers, it’s the state that’s responsible.

But attorneys for the Halifax parents point out the predominantly white district has received millions more in local funding from tax revenues, leading to newer buildings, more supplies, and, ultimately, better academic performance.

Mark Dorosin

“This case concerns what the county commission has failed to do,” said Mark Dorosin, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and an attorney with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.

However, Justice Paul Newby pressed Dorosin to explain the difference between the Silver case and the two Leandro rulings, in which the court ultimately pointed the finger at the state and the General Assembly for funding disparities.

Dorosin argued that, while prior courts found the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure an education for all, local county commissioners too have a responsibility to fund schools fairly.

The state historically funds day-to-day operations in K-12 schools, but local county commissions are charged with funding the construction and maintenance of school facilities.

He said the funding disparities between the segregated school systems yielded failing facilities in the majority Black districts, a factor that attorneys say contributed to the achievement gaps.

“Our education system recognizes that there are shared responsibilities,” Dorosin added.

Attorneys for the county made their arguments that the court rulings in the Leandro case point to the state’s culpability, not the county commissioners.

“If the state of North Carolina was doing what it was supposed to do, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Garris Neil Yarborough, a Fayetteville attorney hired by the county.

The day’s arguments included vigorous questioning from Justice Michael Morgan, who asked what, if anything, county commissioners are responsible for when it comes to local schools.

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Commentary

Pardon me if I don’t celebrate Dale Folwell kicking 600 people off the state health plan

Dale Folwell

State Treasurer Dale Folwell  — who previously made denying people unemployment insurance benefits a top priority during his destructive tenure at the state’s Division of Employment Security — got himself the thing so many right-wing politicians always seems to covet most last week: a blaring, front page headline in which they get “credit” for cutting some poor souls off from some public benefit program. As some readers may have noticed, the N&O’s print edition on Friday featured a front page, above-the-fold story by reporter Will Doran detailing Folwell’s action to kick 601 people off the state health plan, whom he claims were ineligible.

The story says this is all the result of an audit the Folwell helped to launch when he took office last year and that it could, at least in theory, save the state around $3 million — assuming (and it’s a rather big assumption) all those kicked off really are ineligible and that they would have stayed on the program for a full year without being detected or leaving on their own.

The story also says that Folwell has slapped a new $25 per month charge on a plan that used to be free — which it describes as a “cost saving measure.”

Pardon me for not celebrating. Sure, it’s always good for public officials to make sure public benefits they help administer are only flowing to those who are entitled to them. That ought to be a basic, boiler plate duty for any government official in such a role.

That said, such things also need to be kept in perspective. Yes, we should keep public programs from being nickeled and dimed by ineligible individuals, but if anyone thinks that’s where the real money is when it comes to government waste, fraud and abuse, I’ve got some concrete I’d like to sell you for a new DOT highway. The General Assembly wastes $3 million on do-nothing special sessions and giveaways to fat cat special interests with connections to Tim Moore and Phil Berger practically every time it’s in Raleigh. And none of that spending involves providing people access to healthcare.

And that latter fact serves to highlight the broader and even more important point about Folwell’s “accomplishment” — namely the absurdity of a health care system that turns access to what ought to be a fundamental human right into an enormously confusing game of cat and mouse in which average citizens (and even public employees) must constantly negotiate a web of ever-changing rules and regulations.

The bottom line: Folwell could save the state of North Carolina a helluva lot more money and, more importantly, save a lot of human lives, if he would devote his energies to helping convince his fellow conservatives to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and building a health care system for all. That’s the kind of accomplishment that would truly be worthy of a self-promoting P.R. campaign.

Commentary

Editorial: State school takeover turns “slimy”

In case you missed it, be sure to check out an editorial that ran in the Charlotte Observer this weekend on the latest developments with North Carolina’s so-called “Innovative School District.” As Policy Watch readers will recall, the ISD is yet another school privatization scheme from legislative conservatives that calls for private operators to take over troubled schools. As readers will also recall, however, the plan has been nothing short of a disaster since its inception and has thus far managed to effect the takeover of only a single school by a single, unqualified contractor.

This is from the Observer editorial “Charlotte company behind a promising schools idea that’s become an embarrassment” that describes the developments around the planned takeover as “slimy”:

“ISD officials have struggled to find a qualified company to operate the one school initially chosen for takeover — Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County. The operator that’s finally gotten the nod — Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children (AAC) — looks bad in every important way. AAC is only a year old and doesn’t have the long history of success that ISD’s creators had envisioned. Neither does a company that AAC chose as an operating partner, TeamCFA, which has a mixed record of student achievement in 13 N.C. Charter schools. That deficiency appears to violate the 2016 law that requires the operator or its partners to have a record of improving persistently low-performing schools and students.

An ISD-commissioned evaluator, SchoolWorks, also found that AAC was deficient in seven of 11 operational criteria, including startup planning, goals and “mission and vision.” In addition, SchoolWorks was alarmingly skeptical about AAC’s funding model.

But that may not be the worst part. AAC’s operating partner, TeamCFA, was founded by Oregon’s John Bryan, who contributed generously to N.C. political campaigns and has taken credit for getting the ISD law passed. On AAC’s board is Rob Bryan, the law’s author.

At the least, it’s horrible optics. At worst, it appears that North Carolina may have been scammed.

The state school board approved AAC in a somewhat contentious 7-4 vote this month, but as part of that approval, AAC must submit a response to SchoolWorks’ concerns. ISD superintendent Eric Hall told the Observer editorial board Friday he expected that response by day’s end. Hall said he’ll review it and report to the state school board. He stressed that the ISD has “significant accountability” in place.

Hall and the board should demonstrate that. Hiring AAC is, simply, an embarrassment, and any school board member voting to move forward with the company is doing a disservice not only to the students of Southside Ashpole, but to the Innovative School District overall.”

Environment

Study finds GenX, other fluorinated compounds still in tap water; NC State scientists to discuss results tomorrow

But hey, you get a free spatula: Teflon and other non-stick surfaces are made using fluorinated compounds, which can harm human health and the environment. (Photo of advertisement: Creative Commons)

GenX and other fluorinated chemicals have been found in most tap water samples collected from 198 homes served by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, according to results from a study conducted in New Hanover County late last year by NC State scientists. 

Scientists from the university’s Center for Human Health and the Environment are scheduled to discuss the results during a public forum tomorrow at the Fisher Student Center at UNC Wilmington. Doors open at 6 p.m.

None of the samples exceeded the state’s health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion for GenX in drinking water. There is no EPA regulatory standard for GenX.

However, concentrations of three of the 17 compounds  — Nafion Byproduct 2, PFMOAA and PFOHxA — are unknown because scientists didn’t have the tools to measure them at the time of the analysis. The EPA is still working on test standards for these compounds. 

The total concentrations of all compounds is also important. For PFOS and PFOA, the EPA has set a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion combined in drinking water. 

Scientists collected tap water from each home’s kitchen faucet and tested the sample for 17 fluorochemicals, including GenX, from Nov. 3 to Dec. 8, 2017. Since the water came directly from the homes’ faucets, it had been treated by the Cape Fear Public Utility’s Sweeney plant.

None of the samples from four homes served by the utility’s groundwater plant had detectable levels of GenX.

Scientists shared the results with the utility. Blood and urine results are still being analyzed.

Documents included in each home’s results emphasized that changes in concentration are expected because of varying levels of GenX entering the treatment plant over time. Several factors contribute to that variation. For example, Chemours accidentally discharged GenX from its Fayetteville Works plant several times after the company ostensibly stopped releasing the chemical. 

GenX has also been found in sediment in the Cape Fear River, which, when stirred up by wind, rain or boats, can release the chemical into the water. GenX has also been detected in rainwater not only near the Chemours facility but also at a weather station in Wilmington.

DEQ has issued several notices of violation to Chemours for these illegal discharges, including air emissions; state regulators and the attorney general’s office have also asked a Bladen County Superior Court judge for a permanent injunction to prohibit the company for discharging or emitting GenX into the environment in any form.