Education, News

Wake, Guilford schools to close for May 16 teacher rally in Raleigh

North Carolina’s largest school system will join a growing list of districts closing their doors this month in anticipation of a massive teacher rally in Raleigh.

Officials with the Wake County Public School System announced their plans Monday, as teachers plans their protests to coincide with the May 16 return of state legislators to session.

Wake schools weren’t the only ones to announce their decision Monday. Guilford County Schools reportedly will close as well, with thousands of Guilford teachers requesting off May 16.

Mooresville Graded School District announced its plans to close Monday too.

State lawmakers have been under fire from public school advocates and educators in recent years. In part, the criticism stems from lagging teacher pay, although state lawmakers have approved modest raises in recent years.

Still, North Carolina’s overall K-12 funding from 2008 to 2015 was down more than 12 percent when inflation was taken into account, one of the largest declines in the nation, according to a report last year from the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

School advocates say they’re expecting more than 10,000 teachers to converge on Raleigh for this month’s rally, which is led by the state and local chapters of the N.C. Association of Educators.

The interest’s spurred Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools—the state’s second-largest district—to close too, along with Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

If districts don’t close, teachers must request a personal day, requiring them to forfeit $50 from their paychecks.

The North Carolina rally follows widespread teacher protests in generally conservative-leaning states like Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.

Look for more coverage of the May 16 rally this week at Policy Watch.

Education, News

Report: Districts prepare for mass teacher protests May 16

Forsyth Co. teachers Frankie Santoro and Sara Thompson

UPDATE: The Durham Board of Education voted Wednesday evening to close schools on May 16th to accommodate the more than 1,000 educators expected to take the day off to lobby the legislature for better pay.

With close to 1,000 Durham teachers expected to take a “personal day” to rally May 16 in Raleigh, it seems likely that the school system will close schools that day.

A News & Observer report Wednesday examines how other districts are prepping for a large-scale, teacher advocacy day, which is timed to coincide with North Carolina lawmakers’ return to session.

Read on.

From The N&O:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools expects to have a preliminary tally Friday of how many teachers are taking leave that day, said school board Chairwoman Mary McCray. Meanwhile, district leaders are trying to line up all available substitute teachers and drawing up plans to send top administrators in to teach classes.

“I would be willing to go sub in a classroom myself if need be,” said McCray, a retired teacher and former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

Even though Raleigh is in Wake County, which would make it close geographically for teachers to attend the march, Wake school officials say they’re not seeing large numbers of educators who are requesting the day off. Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman, said they have enough substitute teachers at this point to cover for the day.

Wake hasn’t had to call in top administrators to cover classes since 2015, when many teachers didn’t show up after the district cut into spring break to hold snow makeup days.

Raleigh parent Stephanie Lormand urged interim Wake County Superintendent Del Burns on Tuesday to close school on May 16. She told Burns that he has nothing to lose.

“Please close Wake County schools on May 16th to allow the largest school system in the state to advocate for public school funding at the state legislature,” Lormand said during Tuesday’s school board meeting.

The Durham district has said nearly 1,000 teachers, or about 41 percent of its teaching corps, have requested personal leave May 16, with some schools reporting that nearly all will be absent. The school board will hold a special meeting Wednesday to decide whether to close schools.

The march coincides with the opening of North Carolina’s General Assembly — and with the final month of school, when students are preparing for exams and many high schools are giving Advanced Placement tests.

North Carolina’s teachers and administrators are walking a careful line.

The “March for Students and Rally for Respect” is playing out in the context of recent #RedForEd teacher walkouts and strikes in ArizonaWest Virginia and Kentucky. Sources ranging from The Brookings Institute to Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss have flagged North Carolina as one of the next Republican-led states that’s ripe for a teacher strike.

Leaders of the North Carolina Association of Educators are careful to say their May 16 action is neither a walkout nor a strike. North Carolina is a right-to-work state where teacher strikes are illegal. However, state law gives teachers the right to take personal leave with at least five days’ advance notice — as long as a substitute is available and the teacher pays a $50 “required substitute deduction.”

“The goal is never to strike or walk out. The goal is to change education policy,” NCAE President Mark Jewel said Tuesday. He cast the action as a march for students and a rally for better pay, safer schools and newer buildings.

Erlene Lyde, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, says her group had kept the call to action fairly low key, not wanting to prod principals into doing anything that might restrict participation. But after news of the widespread Durham participation broke, “I think it’s going to ramp up,” she said this week.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg group has one bus to Raleigh filled and a second started, she said. Jewell said that, as of Tuesday, roughly 1,000 people had registered to participate, but those numbers could climb — especially if Durham County alone actually sends hundreds.

Administrators, meanwhile, are trying to support their teachers while avoiding massive disruption. And they don’t want to antagonize the GOP-led legislature that provides the majority of public school funding.

“CMS supports teachers and is advocating for higher pay in the proposed CMS 2018-19 budget,” spokesman Tracy Russ said last week. “The district looks forward to a full day of teaching and learning for students and teachers on May 16 based on current information.”

McCray said she doesn’t consider closing schools this late in the year an option, but she wants to see teachers participate in the march. She says she has heard the state senate will release its budget plan on May 15. Depending on how public education fares, she said, the rally could be a thank-you or a protest.

Education, News

Report: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction should modernize, streamline services

A newly released organizational assessment of North Carolina’s K-12 oversight agency says the state could save some cash by modernizing its information technology and streamlining services.

The report, prepared by international consulting agency Ernst & Young, estimated the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) could ultimately save more than $5 million by implementing 18 recommendations, although the investment would cost about $4 million.

Chris Librizzi, an Ernst & Young managing director who specializes in K-12 consulting, told members of the State Board of Education Tuesday that his office went into the assessment with an “open mind” for its would-be financial implications, although state lawmakers’ budgeted in roughly $1 million in anticipated budget savings from the review next year.

The audit was ordered during last year’s budget process by a Republican-controlled General Assembly that’s been bitingly critical of the state agency’s spending habits in recent years.

Librizzi’s office completed the assessment in twelve weeks, they said, conducting interviews with more than 300 DPI staff workers, teachers and school system administrators.

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

State Superintendent Mark Johnson said the review was needed to determine “where we are as a department now and where we need to make improvements.”

The 106-page report’s recommendations broadly touched on modernizing and centralizing school data systems, eliminating “siloes” within the agency’s operations and speeding the hiring process within the organization.

The state bureaucracy manages North Carolina’s $9 billion in K-12 funding. The central office primarily supports the state’s 115 local school systems and provides services in poor and struggling school districts, although state lawmakers have ordered more than $22 million in cuts for the department since 2009, much to the consternation of public school advocates.

The report also calls for a “streamlined” system of providing support for school districts. Ernst & Young’s recommendation would decrease field personnel by 5 percent, the report said, with the savings reinvested in local support services.

Look for more on the report later this week from Policy Watch.

Education, News

State Board of Education to hear Department of Public Instruction audit Tuesday

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

North Carolina’s State Board of Education will hear Tuesday from consultants at Ernst & Young on the results of a controversial audit ordered by the Republican-controlled state legislature last year.

No copy of the report was available at press time Monday afternoon, but it comes amid lingering tension between the public school agency and the General Assembly, which has handed down more than $22 million in cuts since 2009. 

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, backed the performance review, which called upon the consultant to seek out unnecessary or “ineffective” programs and services, evaluate jobs within the department that are “duplicative” and lay out measurable goals, roles and responsibilities for the central office administration.

Lawmakers also budgeted in $1 million in DPI cuts next year as a result of the audit, a move that led some to suggest the legislature made up its mind about the agency’s inefficiency before any review was conducted.

Yet state board members have been openly critical of both the legislature and the audit, suggesting that the deep cuts sustained by DPI since 2009 have seriously eroded the state’s ability to perform.

The agency provides support and advice for schools across the state, as well as intervention in some low-performing schools and districts. Board Chairman Bill Cobey has said DPI is most needed in North Carolina’s poorest districts, which don’t have the local resources to provide the kind of professional development and support offered by DPI.

Tuesday’s board meeting will also include a separate review of performance in the state’s school transformation efforts led by researchers at Vanderbilt University. Look for Policy Watch coverage this week.

Education, News

Report: School systems, state battle over pensions

North Carolina school systems and the state treasurer are at odds over who’s to pay for millions in retirement pension costs, according to a WRAL report Friday.

The tension, and pending court case, come amid complaints from local systems that they’re having to foot more of the bill these days when it comes to public education operating expenses, which have historically been borne by the state.

From WRAL:

State Treasurer Dale Folwell says school systems, community colleges and others have to be held accountable for juicing salaries for well-connected people at the end of their careers, giving them a sweeter pension for life. Government agencies fighting the change say it’s much more complicated than that and that the system penalizes those who rise through the ranks or spend parts of their career out of state.

The General Assembly will ultimately decide this fight and, in doing so, hammer out important details to North Carolina’s 2014 anti-pension-spiking law. The late-career salary boosts the law was meant to stymie are still allowed, but if they crack a threshold set by the state, then the agency or local government has to write a check to the Teachers’ and State Employees’ Retirement System or the Local Governmental Employees’ Retirement System.

Those checks often run well into six figures.

Folwell’s office, which oversees these funds, is arguing with school systems over where to set the threshold. Four systems have sued, and the case comes before the state Court of Appeals next month.

“I’m convinced that their objective is to undermine the intent of the General Assembly to hold employing agencies responsible for decisions they make, which create visible winners and invisible losers,” Folwell wrote of the school systems in Johnston, Wilkes, Union and Cabarrus counties.

Other districts, including the Wake County Public School System, are pushing back through the state’s regulatory process. Wake County schools got a $349,700 bill this year to cover part of retired Superintendent Jim Merrill’s pension. District spokesman Tim Simmons said Merrill topped the cap not because of a spiking but because his salary increased significantly as he left Alamance County for the superintendent’s job in Virginia Beach, Va., then came back to Wake County, the country’s 15th largest school system.

“It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether you provided additional compensation to someone at the end of their career,” Simmons said. “It can simply be a reflection of their career path.”

Merrill started at Wake County making $275,000 in 2013. His salary was was about $303,000 when he retired as of March 1 this year. State pensions are based on the highest consecutive four years of salary.

The Treasurer’s Office won’t speak to individual cases, saying it’s not allowed to discuss particular retirees. Invoices it sends local governments and state agencies have to be matched up to actual retirees based on the retirement date referenced, and bills are sent only for employees making at least $105,000 a year.

Those bills from the Treasurer’s Office total $2.64 million so far this year and $14.3 million since the pension-spiking law passed. Going forward, the Treasurer’s Office has said its formula would shift some $74 million onto pension-spiking employers, saving money for employers who don’t engage in the practice.

Folwell acknowledged that some pensions above the cap may not be true spiking but said they typically are.

“At the end of the day, it’s normally people in power or know people who are in power,” he said. “This is not about the teacher who gets promoted. This is not about the custodian who gets to be a supervisor.”

But that’s the sort of argument school systems are making. Leanne Winner, head of government relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said there have been some true spikings, where people in power help out allies. The law was created, in part, because employers converted such perks as housing allowances into salaries, inflating pensions.

But Winner said a lot of school systems are getting bills because retiring leaders spent much of their career as teachers making lower salaries.

“Going forward, we will see more of those,” she said. “We are already seeing it happen with principals.”

The largest spiking invoice this year went to Wilson County Schools, where Assistant Superintendent Susan Bullock retired with a salary of about $145,500. She spent more than 32 years with the system, according to her biography, beginning her career as a teacher’s assistant. She drove a school bus for 10 years, according to the system.

The second largest bill went to Edgecombe Community College, where President Deborah Lamm will retire later this year at a salary of about $207,500. Lamm spent 39 years working at three different community colleges, according to Edgecombe Community College Chief Financial Officer Stephanie Fisher.

“This is one of those situations of an unintended (consequence),” Fisher said.

Earlier this month, the state’s Rules Review Commission, which signs off on the more complex regulations that emerge from laws passed by the legislature, held a hearing on a key part of the formula used to set pension-spiking thresholds. They sided with the Treasurer’s Office, but enough people opposed the plan to kick the issue back to the General Assembly.

Winner said school boards will ask legislators to look at how the law is affecting systems, which can’t raise their own revenue and rely on state funding combined with funding approved by local county commissioners.

The Treasurer’s Office has billed various governments and agencies for 154 retirees since the pension-spiking law passed, including 27 this year for retirements through June 1.

“Each one probably has its own story,” Winner said.