Defending Democracy, News, public health

ICYMI: Why are so many Black babies dying in North Carolina? (Video)

If you weren’t able to attend NC Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation about the Black infant mortality rate in the state, that full program is now available online.

This week’s event featured Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer discussing her seven-month project about the racial disparity in infant mortality rates in North Carolina. She reports that Black babies are more than twice as likely to die than white babies. Other panelists were Whitney Tucker, Research Director at NC Child; Rebecca Cerese, Engagement Coordinator for the N.C. Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project; and Tina Sherman, Campaign Director for the Breastfeeding and Paid Leave Campaigns at MomsRising.

They talked about the extent of the crisis and offered solutions, both long and short term, for combating racism and offering better care to Black pregnant women.

Stay tuned for an announcement coming soon about the next Crucial Conversations event, which will be a happy hour featuring special guests who will discuss all things related to the North Carolina primary election.

In the meantime, please watch and share this special presentation:

Education, Higher Ed

Former UNC Board of Governors chair: Time to increase diversity, independence from the General Assembly

Louis Bissette, the former Chair of the UNC Board of Governors, has some solid advice for current BOG members in a new essay at Higher Ed Works.

Bissette writes in a series on good governance that it is well past time for the board to focus on professional diversity, and stop playing political games.

Here’s more from Bissette:

Louis Bissette

Lately, we have seen a lot of headlines about how our universities are led, with a focus on the Board of Governors. Whether you think things are going well or going badly, we can all agree that our leadership quality helps dictate our university quality.

Simply put, we need the best governing boards possible. But I don’t think many of us have thought about what that looks like. You can’t get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re going.

So, what would a perfect board look like? I don’t have all the answers, but I believe it would focus on three things: diversity, independence, and trust.

First, a perfect Board of Governors is one that looks like North Carolina. This is a diverse state, but we don’t have a diverse Board. Of the Board’s 24 voting members, only two live west of the Charlotte area, only three are persons of color, and only five are women.

A governing board should reflect the interests of the people it represents. Geographically and demographically, it should look like our student body and the people of our state. That’s how we make sure all voices are heard and our policies are broadly supported and sustainable.

A perfect board would have more professional diversity. Speaking as a lawyer, a board only needs a few of us. It also needs educators. It needs CEOs and CFOs. It needs respected civic leaders and credentialed policy wonks.

Some corporate boards have experience targets that they use informally to build the right diversity of skills. That’s not a bad idea for a public board as well.

The biggest gap, however, between a board that looks like our state and the current board, is political. When I first started serving, Democrats and Republicans were just about equally represented on the Board of Governors. It functioned effectively. But today, the Board has no Democrats. That is simply not representative of our state and of the citizens we serve.

Second, a perfect Board of Governors is one that is independent, or as close to independent as a public body can be. Our universities should be held accountable, but governing boards do not exist to serve as oversight committees for the legislature.

The University System’s Board of Governors owes its fiduciary duty to the System. Its duty of loyalty is to the institution it represents, not the institution that appoints its members, the General Assembly.

Who appoints those members is also important. A perfect board would have its appointment power spread out as much as possible. In the past, the executive branch of our state government had a hand in appointing Board of Trustees members, and most folks agree it was a healthy way to be sure differing views were heard. No single entity should have total control over boards as important as these.

In addition, each member of the Board of Governors must be as independent as possible. They must be able to tell the General Assembly “no” when the University’s interests don’t totally align with the Legislature’s.

That means Board Members’ careers and professional interests shouldn’t be financially reliant on the General Assembly. If you are a lobbyist, or your business relies on state contracts, you’re probably not the best person for the Board of Governors.

No board can be fully independent. After all, the popularly elected General Assembly rightly controls the University System’s purse strings. But a perfect board should strive for as much independence as possible.

Third, a perfect board is focused on trust. The processes of the Board of Governors are pretty impressive on paper. Its committee structure delegates tasks, empowers professional staff and the President, and creates a deliberative, data-driven process for making decisions. Problems arise when a board loses trust in the process.

Read Bissette’s full column here.

Making Governance Work is a series of essays from university, business and political leaders on the Higher Ed Works website. For more on the series and the state of our higher education system, listen to our recent interview with Higher Ed Works Executive Director David Rice:

David Rice, Higher Ed Works

Environment

The NC Oil and Gas Commission: Pointless, obsolete and often surreal

Butler Well 3, a natural gas well in northern Lee County, has been idle for nearly 22 years. It’s unclear if the well has been regularly inspected for leaks. (Photo: Oil and Gas Commission)

Out in the woods in far northern Lee County, two natural gas wells have been idling, under pressure as much as 900 pounds per square inch, for nearly 22 years. Over several days in September 1998, Simpson 1 and Butler 3, as the test wells are known, were fracked by Amvest using nitrogen foam. While a small amount of gas flowed from the wells, the fracking ultimately failed. The wells have lain fallow since.

The Oil and Gas Commission — or at least the two members who attended the Feb. 10 meeting — is concerned about fate of these wells and the potential dangers they pose to neighbors. The wells are grandfathered and not subject to current oil and gas inspection regulations.

“The casing over time corrodes,” said Commission Chairman Jim Lister. “There could be a mechanical integrity issue.”

“Are the wells inspected monthly?” Lister asked.

No one at the state Geological Survey or Department of Environmental Quality knew.

“Do they present a liability to the state or to residents?” Lister pressed. “What happens if there’s a problem with the well? With the groundwater? If they’re damaged? If there are leaks?”

No idea.

“Who spends the money to plug an abandoned well. The state?”

Again, no one knew.

Rebecca Wyhof Salmon, the only other commissioner physically present at the meeting, echoed Lister’s concerns about the well integrity. “If no one is inspecting them regularly,” said Salmon, who is also a Sanford City Councilwoman in Lee County, “we have a responsibility to the community.”

Had this been a functioning commission — and had the legal information been available — this could have been an interesting, even productive discussion. But the question of the status of these wells was never resolved. (Russell Patterson of Patterson Exploration, which owns the wells, did not return a phone message from Policy Watch asking about the inspections.)

The commission failed to have a quorum of at least five people, and thus could take no formal action. Members can call in, but too few of them did. Instead, like the two main characters in the absurdist play Waiting for Godot, Lister and Salmon were the only commissioners in the room, waiting for an answer to arrive.

The commission has been dysfunctional since the legislature revived it in 2014.  The fracking boom that the McCrory administration predicted was a pipe dream, much to the relief of residents of and Chatham and Lee counties who lived in the bulls-eye, their drinking water, health and property values at risk.

Womack, who had run unsuccessfully for state Republican Party chairman, soon became the Next Best Thing: Oil and Gas Commissioner, appointed by Sen. Phil Berger. But in January 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCrory vs. Berger, that the commission was unconstitutional because the governor, not the legislature had the authority to appoint the majority of the members. That decision waylaid the commission for several months.

In 2017, Womack scheduled an illegal meeting at which he planned to challenge fracking moratoriums enacted by Chatham and Lee counties. The NC Department of Environmental Quality intervened, telling Womack that the commission could not lawfully hold the meeting because Berger had not reappointed him to the new and constitutionally legitimate commission.

Berger then appointed Womack, an ardent fracking proponent, to the new commission to fill the seat reserved for conservation interests. But Womack’s only “conservation” bona fides was a volunteer with the American Council on Science and Health, a front group for several polluting industries that performs no conservation activities.

Read more

Education

Critics question the sincerity of Superintendent Mark Johnson’s proposal to end Common Core. Could it be a political stunt?

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s Common Core survey is getting panned on social media.

Critics contend the survey is politically  motivated and the questions too simplistic.

Educators are also complaining about receiving email and text messages with the link to the five-question survey.

“Shame on you for a disgraceful political stunt,” Phyllis Eubank West wrote on Johnson’s Facebook page. “If you were so interested curriculum, you would have initiated surveys etc. 3 years ago and not 3 weeks before a primary. BTW, the survey is poorly designed.”

Graham Wilson, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), said NCDPI received a handful of calls from people with complaints about the text messages.

“We remind callers that to opt out of receiving text messages from the NC Department of Public Instruction, they should reply STOP to the message,” Wilson said.

Common Core is a set of academic standards in mathematics and English language arts that define what K-12 students should learn by the end of each school year.

Johnson is a candidate for lieutenant governor. If elected, he could work from that post to rid the state of Common Core because the lieutenant governor serves on the State Board of Education.

“Opposition to Common Core from educators and parents is what I hear about the most across our state,” Johnson said in a recent statement. “I strongly disagreed with the State Board of Education’s decision to keep Common Core in place in 2017. But now there’s a clear path we can replicate in North Carolina to remove Common Core, and I encourage the State Board to closely examine this new option with us.”

The clear path runs through Florida. That state eliminated Common Core last week.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is expected to go before the State Board of Education this week to request adoption of new standards,  Florida Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking (BEST) Standards for English Language Arts and mathematics.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s survey ask takers to identify themselves as educators, parents or other. It also ask:

  • Are current education studandards in North Carolina providing an effective path to success?
  • Are you familiar with Common Core?
  • Should North Carolina public schools put more focus on teaching U.S. history and civics?
  • Should North Carolina public schools put more focus on teaching financial literacy?

Here is what critics on Twitter had to say about Johnson’s proposal:

Commentary, Higher Ed

Dellinger: Discarded UNC plan dooms Silent Sam deal and any proposed campus return

Since the UNC Board of Governors unveiled its sweetheart package for the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), critics of the payoff have uncovered witnesses and documents that should lead fair-minded observers to conclude that the outlay is unwarranted. As the agreement currently stands, the SCV gets possession of “Silent Sam,” the Confederate monument that towered over the center of the Chapel Hill campus until its toppling in August 2018, plus more than $2.5 million dollars in public money.

This week, state judge Allen Baddour will hold a hearing to reconsider his initial approval of the deal. Beyond the important new information revealed by gumshoes such as Durham attorney Greg Doucette along with student journalists at The Daily Tar Heel, there is a seemingly forgotten public document that also severely undercuts the rationale for the settlement itself and confirms that any effort to return Silent Sam to UNC’s campus would be untenable.

The document, entitled “Recommendation for the Disposition and Preservation of the Confederate Monument,” was released by UNC Chapel Hill officials in December 2018. Over its fifty-three pages, it sets forth a proposal to reinstall Silent Sam in a new, multi-million dollar indoor building on campus. The plan was immediately, widely, and rightly derided by the public and quickly discarded by the Board of Governors.

But what’s most striking today is what the document does not say. There is not a single mention – none – of any private group having any legal interest in the statue. Indeed, the entire plan rests on the assumption that UNC, and UNC alone, owns the monument.

Of course the presumption of UNC ownership in the 2018 plan now contradicts the linchpin of the Board of Governor’s defense for its multi-million dollar giveaway to the pro-Confederacy group: that a private entity (the United Daughters of the Confederacy), not UNC, has had legal title to Silent Sam all along. So grounds for discarding the UNC-SCV deal come from UNC Chapel Hill itself. If school leaders did not see a basis to mention any right to Silent Sam possessed by the Daughters, the Sons, or anyone else in its own lengthy consideration of post-toppling options, why should the Board of Governors’ later claim of longstanding private ownership be taken seriously?

The 2018 disposition plan is not only the best evidence of outright UNC ownership, it also makes the best argument for why Silent Sam could never return to its original location once the settlement is undone.  In UNC Chapel Hill’s words, “the return of the Monument to its pedestal creates unacceptably high safety risks”.  Because North Carolina’s monuments law explicitly allows a statue to be moved if it “poses a threat to public safety”, the campus plan makes clear that permanent removal is the only reasonable option.

The monuments law notwithstanding, I have long argued that Silent Sam’s fate should be controlled by federal law because the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress in 1964 bans schools from allowing the racially hostile environments that Confederate monuments on campus inevitably create. Read more