State Board of Education suspends Northampton County Schools superintendent over district performance

Superintendent Pamela Chamblee

The State Board of Education (SBE) suspended Northampton County Schools (NCS) Superintendent Pamela Chamblee on Thursday, citing state law that gives the board authority to do so if a district is perennially low-performing.

The SBE hired veteran educator Del Burns as interim superintendent of the small, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state. The district has fewer than 1,500 students and only eight schools. Burns is a former superintendent of the Wake County Public School System.

Burns’ tenure as interim superintendent is effective immediately, the State Board said in a statement.

“The Northampton County School System has been a low-performing school district for a number of years and remains so despite many opportunities to improve,” the State Board said. “The time has come for the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction to use the authority vested in them to take a more direct role in addressing the needs of the Northampton County Schools by appointing a highly experienced Interim Superintendent who has an impressive track record of helping to lift achievement levels in school districts across the State.”

The Northampton Board of Education immediately called a “special meeting” Thursday afternoon to discuss Chamblee’s suspension.

“We’re committed to working with the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) and the State Board to ensure that our students continue to receive the best education possible,” said Rhonda Taylor, chairwoman of the NCS Board of Education.

Taylor said the board will release a statement after its meeting.

The News-Herald reported that five out of seven district schools are considered low-performing

The State Board cited NC General Statute Sections 115C-105.39 and 115C-274 (b) and (c), which allow it to remove a local superintendent if the superintendent:

  • Fails to cooperate with an assigned DPI State Assistance Team.
  • Takes actions to hinder the ability of the school system to improve its low-performing status.
  • Is in a district in which more than half of the schools are identified as low-performing.

State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis

State Board Chairman Eric Davis noted that the Northampton has been assigned an “assistance team” by NCDPI to help improve student performance. He said the board has received “evidence” that more assertive steps are warranted.

“Our preferred approach is one of collaboration and partnership through the assistance teams with local boards of education and local superintendents,” Davis said. “The State Board also has specific authority under state statutes to provide additional support through more direct intervention in the operation of low-performing districts if the board deems it necessary to improve the instruction in those districts and students’ academic achievement.”

Chamblee has been superintendent of Northampton County Schools since 2019. She was hired as an interim superintendent in April 2019, then as the permanent superintendent in August 2019.

According to The News-Herald, the school board voted 5-2 to fire Chamblee in June 2020. Many of the votes to terminate her contract, however, came from board members completing terms after unsuccessful reelection bids, the paper reported. The new board sworn in two weeks later rescinded Chamblee’s termination, the paper said.

At-home COVID tests to be covered by insurance—but details still to come

NC Court of Appeals rules judge can’t force legislature to meet state’s obligation for $1.7B school improvement plan

The plaintiffs in the state’s long-running school funding case were dealt a setback Tuesday when the NC Court of Appeals ruled the judge overseeing the case doesn’t have the authority to require the state to spend $1.7 billion on a public-school improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee had ordered State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, State Controller Linda Combs and state Budget Director Charles Perusse to release state money to fund the first two years of a state-wide school improvement plan that grew out of the decades old Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The State Supreme Court ruled in that case that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide children with sound basic education.

Tuesday’s Appeals Court ruling came on a 2-1 vote with Republican judges Chris Dillon and Jefferson Griffin agreeing that the state Constitution “permits” but does not require the General Assembly to “supplement” existing sources of school funding. Combs had asked the Court to dismiss the order.

Furthermore, the judges said Lee’s order is “constitutionally impermissible and beyond the power of the trial court.”

“We note that our Supreme Court has long held that, while our judicial branch has the authority to enter a money judgment against the State or another branch, it had no authority to order the appropriation of monies to satisfy any execution of that judgment,” the judges said.

Judge John Arrowood, a Democrat, wrote the dissent, arguing that a temporary stay of Lee’s order was appropriate because the Court was not under any “real time pressure.”

The plaintiffs were given one day to respond, following a holiday weekend [Thanksgiving] to respond to Combs’ request to dismiss Lee’s order, Arrowood said. That violates the Rules of Appellate Procedure that allow “parties to fully and fairly present their arguments to the Court,” he said.

“My concerns are exacerbated in this case by the fact that no adverse actions would occur to the petitioner during the regular response time as the trial court had already stayed its own order until several days after responses were due,” Arrowood said.

State Republican leaders applauded the court’s decision, and then took aim at state educators.

“The people of North Carolina through their elected legislators, not an unelected county-level trial judge, decide how to spend tax dollars,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement. “Rather than accepting responsibility for lagging achievement and outright failure, the Leandro parties insist that the pathway to student improvement is always the simple application of more money.”

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators,  responded to the Court’s ruling on Twitter.

“I’ve never ever, in my whole life, seen people work so hard to DENY children the resources they need to be successful,” Kelly said.

The state’s landmark school funding case was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children with a quality education. The rural school systems did not have tax bases large enough to fund schools at the same level as wealthier urban districts.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Lee hired WestEd, an independent consultant to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. The public school improvement plan before the court is largely based on WestEd’s report. The recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

The state budget funds 53% of the school improvement plan this school year but falls to 43% next year, according to Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law project.

Policy Watch is also a project of the Justice Center.


Biden to unveil plan to blunt potential COVID surge this winter

As a leading UNC epidemiologist reiterates the benefits of vaccination, conservative legislators push for Ivermectin

UNC epidemiologist Justin Lessler

On the same day the U.S. confirmed its first case of the omicron variant, UNC epidemiologist Justin Lessler found himself back before a legislative commission answering questions about ongoing efforts to end the pandemic.

“I remain cautiously optimistic about the direction things are going in the state, but with emphasis on the caution,” Lessler said.”I think we need to be prepared for the possibility of a significant winter wave at this point.”

Lessler, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said as more people gather indoors for holiday festivities there’s much that remains unknown about the new variant.

“Even with significant immune invasion, it’s important to remember that vaccination will likely remain the most effective way to prevent severe disease and hospitalization even if it doesn’t fully prevent infection,” Lessler testified Wednesday.

He said very preliminary data out of Israel suggests that the current vaccines may work fairly well against the new variant.

“But just to remind you, new variants with immune escape are inevitable, and if this variant doesn’t lead to some cases coming back, ones in the future will. But hopefully those future waves – and probably those future waves – will not result in the kind severe disease you see when people are seeing the virus for the first time and have not been primed from earlier infection or immunity.”

But even as Professor Lessler made the case for vaccines and boosters, it was clear that some lawmakers would not be swayed.

Rep. Mark Brody, a Republican from Union County, questioned whether the vaccines could alter one’s DNA.

Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union Co.)

“There are a lot of people who haven’t taken the vaccine including myself, because we just don’t know what it is.”

Lessler patiently explained that there has been confusion about the technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and what’s in the vaccine itself.

“The vaccine itself contains messenger RNA, which never enters the nucleus of the cell, so has no opportunity to quote-unquote ‘edit our genes.’ It is a way to get the cells to express the things our immune system needs to see, to fight the virus without giving it the real virus.”

Rep. Brody asked Lessler if he supported the use of Ivermectin, an animal dewormer, to battle COVID-19.

“Would you support the right to try, along with all the other methods of trying to eradicate and help people with the virus?”

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic medicine used for livestock. It has not received emergency use authorization from the FDA, which issued its own warning about using the drug for COVID.

“I think there’s a difference between whether I think it’s okay to have the right to do something, and whether I think that’s a good idea,” the epidemiologist offered.

“We in this country have the right to do a lot of things that are bad ideas.”

Rep. Jamie Boles (R-Moore), a funeral home director, said it was frustrating that hospitals were not more willing to try Ivermectin on COVID patients.

“Families are asking for this right, and hospitals are not entertaining that,” said Boles.

“Doctors take an oath to do no harm. And if they give a treatment, they have to have some feeling that it will work and be better than the side effect,” Lessler tried to explain.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth Co.)

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) pressed on.

“My understanding and I’m certainly not a doctor and don’t know that much about it, but my understanding is those drugs — the Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin have been used for decades and there are very little side effects. Why is there that pushback?”

“I think it may come down to the evidence, and that fact that we might have other things that help. And sometimes doing nothing is the best thing.”

Unlike a livestock dewormer, Lessler said monoclonal antibodies are a proven treatment. He said the nation is very close to having other antivirals to help people fight a COVID infection.

Lessler said we might not defeat COVID but his hope was that it will at some point change to a seasonal nuisance.

“So what role can state and local governments take in hastening that transition?” asked Sen. Deanna Ballard.

“To the extent that they are able to, encourage people to get vaccinated,” Lessler responded. “That is the most long lasting thing that we can do in terms of how we can impact the pandemic.”