Courts & the Law, Education, News

A decade after key court ruling, N.C. public school districts say they’re owed millions by the state

Nearly a decade after a Superior Court judge found that state agencies owed public school districts almost $750 million, local and state school leaders say they will file a new legal complaint against North Carolina Wednesday.

In that new complaint, which will be filed in Wake County Superior Court, the N.C. School Boards Association (NCSBA) and “many school districts” say they will argue that the state legislature and state agencies have yet to meet their obligations under that ruling.

“The plaintiffs are seeking a win/win and remain willing and eager to work with the legislature and defendants to reach a mutually beneficial resolution,” the NCSBA said in a statement.

School districts say state agencies have held onto millions in civil penalty funds that they were constitutionally obligated to spend on public school technology.

In 2008, Superior Court Judge Howard—a now retired judge who also played a leading role in the state’s landmark Leandro ruling over public school funding—agreed with local school district leaders, noting funds that should have been doled out to districts by state agencies like the Department of Revenue, the Department of Transportation and the UNC campuses.

From the NCSBA’s statement:

The NC Supreme Court ruled that the State Constitution entitles the public schools to civil penalties collected by various state agencies. The NC legislature declared in 1997 that those funds should be used exclusively for technology.

The courts determined that civil penalties collected by state agencies between 1996 and 2005 were diverted to other purposes in violation of the Constitution. A 2008 Judgment against the defendants totaled nearly $750M. The court noted at the time that “the ultimate responsibility for the satisfaction of this judgment will depend on the manner in which the General Assembly discharges its constitutional duties.”

Fast forward to 2018 – The legislature and defendants have still not fulfilled their constitutional obligation to provide funding to make up for the vast majority of funds that were diverted.

NCSBA leaders will reveal more details about the complaint at a press conference Wednesday morning, scheduled for 10 a.m. at George Watts Elementary in Durham.

Education, News

Complaint claims Wake County schools violates rights of students with mental health disabilities

A new complaint with the state’s K-12 leaders claims North Carolina’s largest public school system “routinely violates the rights” of students with mental health disabilities.

Attorneys with Advocates for Children’s Services, a Legal Aid of N.C. project, filed the complaint regarding Wake County schools with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) Tuesday, noting it was their fourth complaint against the school district since 2009.

“It’s time to turn the tide for students with mental health disabilities in Wake County schools,” Advocates for Children’s Services attorney Cari Carson said in a statement Wednesday.

Advocates for Children’s Services cited seven unnamed students in the complaint, alleging that each experienced “significant violations” of their rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which sets national K-12 standards for the schooling of students with disabilities.

“However, these seven—by illustrating the system’s patterns and practices—represent hundreds of others treated the same way,” Advocates for Children’s Services said in their statement.

The district operates more than 180 schools serving about 160,000 students.

Wake County Public School System spokesman Tim Simmons said the district received the complaint Wednesday and is in the process of reviewing it. However, Simmons said student privacy laws forbid school officials from commenting on specific cases.

“That said, we are committed to providing all students with the best services possible and constantly strive to improve our practices,” Simmons said.

The nonprofit project advocates for low-income children in North Carolina schools by working to address the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” a system of school punishments and suspensions that advocates link to increased school dropouts and higher incarceration rates.

Advocates for Children’s Services say state investigators reported multiple failures in the Wake school system based on previous complaints (see pages 3-5 of this 2012 Advocates for Children’s Services complaint).

Bill Hussey, director of DPI’s Exceptional Children Division, could not be reached for comment on the latest complaint.

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Defending Democracy, Legislature, News

State lawmakers move to seize power over constitutional amendment captions

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett

North Carolina lawmakers wasted little time in filing, and approving, legislation Tuesday that would seize control over the captions that describe six controversial, constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, co-sponsored House Bill 3 Tuesday, shortly after lawmakers rang in a special session that critics blasted as an attempt to defuse a bipartisan commission’s work on the captions in the coming days.

Lawmakers wrote the language for those amendments on the ballot, language that’s already been criticized for offering a particularly “rosy” depiction of their impacts, despite concerns about a much-criticized voter ID amendment and further power shifts from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to state legislators.

But a three-member commission, which includes two Democrats and one Republican, would be charged with authoring short descriptions that would be on the ballot and available to voters.

Lewis’ bill would instead change the captions to read “constitutional amendment,” while leaving the voting guide descriptions to the commission.

Minority party leaders like House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson slammed the hastily convened special session Tuesday, calling it “injurious” to the state.

“What changed between 2016?” Jackson told members of a state House rules committee Tuesday. “Why are we doing it at such a late date?”

The constitutional commission includes Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, as well as Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble, a Republican.

That commission has laid out plans for public comment and a website in anticipation of meeting state election officials’ early August deadline for the caption language, but Lewis wrote in a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore over the weekend that he worried the commission would craft politicized captions intended to sway voters.

Lewis said the commission would still be charged with creating descriptions that would be available to voters, although that language would not be included on the ballot.

The bill passed the House and the Senate Tuesday afternoon on partisan lines, just hours after they were filed, and were sent to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.

Cooper’s expected to veto the bill, but GOP lawmakers have left themselves just enough time to override that veto in time to meet state election officials’ early August deadline.

Sen. Harry Brown, an eastern North Carolina Republican, argued Tuesday, without providing any evidence, that members of the commission would politicize the caption language.

“I would have to argue we think that’s what’s happening in the state,” Brown said.

But on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Democrats noted the descriptions already drawn up by GOP lawmakers to describe the amendments this fall, particularly one that shifts judicial appointment powers from Cooper to the legislature, gloss over details that may lead voters to disapprove.

“If the makeup of this commission had two Republicans and one Democrat, we wouldn’t be here,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat. “If perhaps (GOP candidate) Buck Newton had become attorney general… we wouldn’t be here. This is all political.”

[This is a developing story. Check back updates.]

Defending Democracy, News

N.C. General Assembly to return to session Tuesday

House Speaker Tim Moore (L) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R)

North Carolina state lawmakers will return for a special session at noon Tuesday to take up the captions for this fall’s constitutional amendments and perhaps more.

Policy Watch has obtained a copy of the official letter calling lawmakers back into session. 

N.C. House Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat, confirmed the news on Twitter Monday afternoon.

Multiple Democrats said they were expecting a return then, as Republicans made their pitch over the weekend to head off the work of a constitutional commission that would have been charged with crafting the captions for the six amendments on the ballot.

That three-member commission includes two Democrats, including Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein. It also includes Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble, a Republican.

The commission seemed to slip GOP lawmakers’ notice when they voted to place the amendments on the ballot this year. In a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore this weekend, Rep. David Lewis, an influential Harnett County Republican, questioned whether the commission would attempt to sway voters against the amendments with the caption language.

Of course, Republicans have been accused of using their own “rosy” language to shape voters’ perception of the amendments. Progressives, including Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield, say they hope all six amendments—which include new voter ID restrictions—will be voted down.

“It would be nice if we had a little bit more of a neutral, stakeholder-led effort to put together that amendment language,” Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, told Policy Watch Monday. “Then we wouldn’t be so distrusting of each other. I’m sick of the partisanship.”

Lawmakers need written requests to return to session from three-fifths of the members in the House and Senate, a reachable goal for a legislature that’s dominated by Republicans.

While the session could be called to take up the amendment language, it’s worth noting that GOP legislators have rammed through controversial provisions that were not on the agenda for past special sessions, as House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson pointed out on Twitter this weekend:

[This is a developing story. Check back for updates.]

Education, News

State Board of Education’s Bill Cobey will not seek another term as chairman

Superintendent Mark Johnson (left) and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey (right).

Bill Cobey, the longtime North Carolina Republican who’s clashed of late with members of his own party in the N.C. General Assembly and Superintendent Mark Johnson, will not seek another term as board chair when his term ends in September.

“I’ve done it for five and a half  years,” Cobey told Policy Watch Friday. “I think that’s plenty long enough.”

Asked whether he intends to remain on the board for the duration of his term, which ends next March, Cobey declined to comment.

The former chair of the state Republican party and, at one time, a GOP hopeful for governor, Cobey has a long history in North Carolina politics and leadership. He served one term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, sat as athletic director for UNC-Chapel Hill, and directed former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s campaign in North Carolina.

But in recent years, Cobey—who was appointed to the State Board of Education by former Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013—has often been at odds with the public education decisions of the Republican-controlled legislature and the state superintendent.

Johnson and members of the board battled in court this year over sweeping new powers given to the GOP superintendent by the legislature last year, with both sides, bizarrely, claiming victory in a state Supreme Court decision in June. The decision seemed to confirm Johnson’s new powers.

Cobey says the state board is now prepping new rules that “define our relationship with the superintendent,” even as Johnson’s office took swipes at the board chair in a terse statement last month.

The shakeup in board leadership will come at a tumultuous time for the board, which has long led the state’s K-12 system with the superintendent.

The board’s former vice chair, A.L. “Buddy” Collins stepped down in March to focus on his campaign for a local county commission seat in Forsyth County.

Board member Eric Davis, who has also clashed with Johnson and state legislators, became vice chair in Collins’ stead. It’s unclear who will step into Cobey’s role as chairman after his departure.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers rankled some when they voted down two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s long-pending nominations for expired state board seats last month.

Legislators re-confirmed current board member Reginald Kenan, but voted down confirmation for J.B. Buxton, a former education adviser for ex-Gov. Mike Easley, and Sandra Byrd, a retired UNC-Asheville associate professor and provost. Lawmakers provided no reasoning in denying a seat for Buxton.

The legislature has allowed the Democratic governor’s state board nominations to bog down for months, while two members, Tricia Willoughby and Wayne McDevitt, continue to serve in seats that expired in March 2017.

Cobey said he’s tried to stay out of the confirmation controversy.

“I understand the disappointment of those appointees,” Cobey said. “However, we have two experienced, well-qualified current board members in Wayne McDevitt and Tricia Willoughby. As long as they are willing to serve, the education of public school students is well served.”