News

State Board of Education weighs charter’s contract with former state legislator, charter advisor

Members of North Carolina’s State Board of Education are expected to discuss in open session Thursday one Charlotte charter’s ethically knotty contract with a new charter management organization led by a former state charter advisor, a former state lawmaker and a longtime school choice advocate.

As noted in a Charlotte Observer report in August, the group Achievement for All Children (AAC) is seeking a contract to run Aristotle Preparatory Academy, a K-5 charter that has struggled in its first years of operation.

According to its state report card, the school reported a “D” performance grade in 2016-2017, although it’s worth noting roughly 95 percent of the school’s students are considered “economically disadvantaged,” a population that tends to struggle academically.

Tony Helton

But the contract has spurred questions about Achievement for All Children’s close ties to state officials. Its leadership includes Tony Helton, CEO of the growing TeamCFA network and, until October, a member of the Charter School Advisory Board, a panel that counsels the state board on charter policy and applications.

Helton was still a member of the charter advisory board when AAC moved to ink a contract with Aristotle Prep this year, which already has a relationship with TeamCFA. And, according to The Observer, no other company was invited to bid for the role sought by AAC.

AAC’s leadership also includes former state Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte school choice champion in the legislature until his defeat in last year’s election, as well as Darrell Allison, a member of the UNC Board of Governors who’s been a fixture in the state’s school choice movement in the last decade.

AAC, which formed this year, is also vying for a contract in the state’s controversial Innovative School District next year.

Board officials said they planned to talk over the contract in closed session Wednesday, but the matter would return for discussion Thursday.

Policy Watch will provide updates as they develop.

News

Charges dropped against UNC professor who protested Silent Sam

Dr. Altha Cravey is asked to leave a September event with UNC Chancellor Carol Folt for holding up a protest sign.

Dr. Altha Cravey, a tenured professor of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, has never been afraid to take a stand.

A regular at campus protests, Cravey has been thrown out of  University events for holding up protest signs and criticized for helping to disrupt meetings of the UNC Board of Governors to oppose their policies.

Cravey doesn’t spook easily. But but she admits that this week, before her citation for throwing a rock at the controversial “Silent Sam” Confederate statue on the Chapel Hill campus was dismissed — she was was stressed.

“I never threw a rock, there was no evidence that I did and I told them when I was cited that I hadn’t,” Cravey said in an interview Wednesday. “I had been laughing it off until the night before the decision — and then my body let me know how stressed out I was. When they dropped the charges, it was a great relief.”

Cravey said her lawyer, Kellie Mannette, was able to provide photographs that cleared her and the matter was dropped Tuesday morning.

A good thing too, Cravey said, as the provost’s office recently asked for a meeting with her to explain that if convicted she would have to report it to the university within five days or she would be fired.

“I think they were trying to intimidate me,” Cravey said. “I usually don’t have any occasion to meet a provost.”

On December 15 the UNC Board of Governors will have a one-day meeting at which they are expected to pass a new university speech policy. Many students, faculty and staff, including Cravey, say they worry it may be used against peaceful protests and could create a chilling effect on critical speech.

“I think it certainly will be used against us,” Cravey said. “I think a lot of this conversation came out of the reaction to us disrupting the Board of Governors meeting when [UNC President] Margaret Spellings was being pushed into the president’s position.”

Cravey said she won’t stop speaking her mind, but she and others are aware of the potential dangers.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Next up in Congress, cuts to programs that deliver opportunity, strengthen economy

Congressional Republicans are rushing to get their tax bill to President Trump’s desk before the end of the year. At the same time most Americans have clearly shown that they are not in favor of this tax bill, and for good reason.

The proposed tax plans in Congress are simply the first of two steps that will hurt millions of low- and middle-income Americans. The first step involves cutting taxes for the richest top 5 percent and major corporations.

The second step, however, entails budget cuts to vital programs that help millions of families and communities across the U.S. While the details of exactly the size and scope of the cuts isn’t immediately clear (beyond those that will be automatic due to sequestration — read more here), GOP leaders have stated publicly their intent to cut programs and services deeply. Here are just a few recent and clear statements around this intent:

“We’re looking very strongly at welfare reform, and that’ll all take place right after taxes, very soon, very shortly after taxes,” – President Trump

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on cutting spending,” – House Speaker Paul Ryan

“The only way you are going to deal with the debt is you have to do two things. … You have got to generate economic growth because growth generates revenue. But you also have to bring spending under control. And not discretionary spending. That isn’t the driver of our debt, … The driver of our debt is the structure of Social Security and Medicare,” – Senator Marco Rubio

Under this tax plan “we will be able to raise more revenues and if not, as a Republican, the answer would be less spending,” – Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee

“I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.” – Senator Orrin Hatch

Luis A. Toledo is a Public Policy Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

Commentary

Mark Johnson’s budget advisor played part in funding issue he’s now criticizing while part of the McCrory administration

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

In case you missed it this morning, be sure to check out Education Reporter Billy Ball’s fascinating story over on the main Policy Watch site (“Mark Johnson accused of misleading the public regarding literacy program spending”). The story highlights the latest bit of maddening behavior from the state’s perpetually befuddled Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson.

As Ball reports, people in the know (like former superintendent June Atkinson and DPI’s former longtime finance chief Philip Price) are setting the record straight with respect to some of Johnson’s most recent bogus claims about state education spending. In particular, as both Atkinson and Price point out, Johnson is just plain wrong in one of his recent attempts to blast Atkinson’s administration for “disturbing spending practices.”

Indeed (and here’s the real kicker), the subject of Johnson’s unfounded griping — that DPI had supposedly screwed up distributing $15 million is “Read to Achieve” funds — was actually the handiwork (at least in part) of his (Johnson’s) current senior budget advisor, Chloe Gossage.

As Ball explains, Johnson has attacked his predecessors for failing to spend the Read to Achieve funds, but the fact of the matter is that one of the reasons for the decision not to expend all the money was a directive from then-Governor McCrory’s Office of State Budget and Management.  This is from Ball’s story:

“Johnson’s own chief budget advisor, Chloe Gossage, played a part in that fracas. When officials with the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) intervened in October 2015, Gossage—the former policy director for ex-Gov. Pat McCrory—was the OSBM’s chief operating officer.

And an October 2015 email obtained by Policy Watch appears to indicate that Gossage was in consultation with OSBM’s assistant state budget officer for education, Adam Brueggemann, on DPI’s Read to Achieve budget wrangling.

But, despite Gossage’s involvement, Johnson’s office didn’t offer any further context last month on their criticism of DPI’s spending habits. Now, Atkinson suggests Johnson is using the controversy to fuel long-standing Republican criticism of DPI’s funding priorities.”

You got that? Johnson is trying to make political hay by attacking his predecessor for something his budget advisor was, at least in part, responsible for. You really can’t make this stuff up.

Unfortunately, when it come to Superintendent Johnson, the sad reality is that crazy, made up stuff is an almost daily occurrence.

Commentary

Yet another dire warning about the GOP’s effort to rig the state courts

A Greensboro News & Record editorial tells it like it is with respect to the ongoing effort of legislative Republicans to remake and rig the state courts.

The editorial comes in response to a public event that took place in the Gate City last week with the help of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections. After spelling out the long list of dramatic changes on the courts imposed in recent years (including making all judicial races partisan, ending public financing, gerrymandering districts, shrinking the Court of Appeals to prevent Governor Cooper from appointing new judges and, more recently, considering constitutional amendments to impose much more radical changes), the editorial (“Court meddling demands scrutiny”) concludes this way:

“The public should never be hit by so many significant changes at once — especially changes motivated by partisan politics.

Fortunately, people who seemed unaware of recent actions are starting to pay attention. A meeting sponsored by several advocacy groups last week drew 175 people to Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel. It was the second of a dozen forums planned for cities across the state.

The discussion was moderated by Elon Law professor David Levine, but only Democratic legislators attended. Republican Rep. Jon Hardister at least sent a statement, although his claim that court changes are not driven by partisan politics isn’t believable. When one of the first moves is to put party labels on court elections, it’s a partisan exercise.

At the District Court level, the introduction of gerrymandering is clearly calculated to help Republicans win judicial seats — for all that matters. Divorces, child support, traffic violations and small-dollar civil suits have nothing to do with partisan politics. But splitting the Guilford County electorate will deny voters the opportunity to choose most of the local judges they will face if they have to go to court.

The Court of Appeals was reduced in size only after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected as governor. The move prevents him from appointing replacements when judges reach the mandatory retirement age.

The worst possible change would be to cut short all judicial terms. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges are granted eight-year terms so that they aren’t constantly pushed and pulled by the politics of the moment. In the federal system, judges serve lifetime terms for that reason. That’s how important the founders believed it was to insulate them from politics. Serving only two years between elections, judges would have to raise money and campaign virtually all the time. The idea is absurd.

Why might this happen? In 2016, Democrats gained a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court. This legislative scheme would nullify that election and throw the entire court up for grabs in 2018. The public should reject political shenanigans in the judicial branch of government.”