Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

Antiracism groups to hold press conference in Durham to push back against ‘attacks’ by conservatives

Ronda Bullock speaks out against racial incident in Chatham County.

Durham parents, educators, students and community organizations will hold a press conference Thursday to support “truth-telling” in North Carolina’s public schools.

The press conference will take place at 4:30 p.m., at the W.G. Pearson Center, 600 East Umstead St.. in Durham.

The event is a response to what the organizers contend are ‘’attacks’ by conservative leaders to “limit education” and to redress “race-baiting, bullying, disrespect and dehumanization” aimed at Ronda Taylor Bullock and her organization, working to extend anti-racist education (we are).

“Attacks against our North Carolina education system and those dedicated to educating our children have markedly increased over the past year and are becoming a disturbing trend,” Stephanie Terry, organizing director of Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE) said in a press release. “One of the biggest lies in this coordinated disinformation campaign attacking education is that critical race theory is about labeling individual people racist and divisive.”

The state’s Republican leadership has been critical of Bullock’s nonprofit in recent weeks, complaining that a contract between the nonprofit and the Wake County Public School System to provide six Millbrook High School teachers money to attend a UNC-Charlotte conference on disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline is inappropriate.

“This is wholly unacceptable,” House Speaker Tim Moore tweeted last month. “No North Carolina school should be teaching anti-American Critical Race Theory in our classrooms, much less competing for a grant from an organization focused on promoting CRT.”

Most educators say CRT, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped American law and public policy, is not taught in K-12 classrooms.

Bullock contends a critical race framework is necessary because it helps students to better understand the world around them.

“Teaching our children the truth aids in understanding how the ongoing legacy of inequality affects the country today, and fosters empathy to create a bridge to unite us,” Bullock said.

Last summer, Senate Leader Phil Berger took issue with the nonprofit’s partnership with Durham Public Schools to operate antiracism summer camps and teacher workshops focused on facilitating K-5 lessons with an antiracist lens.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget would fully fund year three of the Leandro remedial plan

Gov. Roy Cooper

The third year of the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan would be fully funded under a budget proposal released by Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday.

Cooper’s plan calls for spending $525.8 million on the school improvement plan that stems from the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit. He also proposes to spend $687 million more for K-12 and University of North Carolina system construction projects, repairs and renovations.

The remedial plan is based on a detailed school improvement plan developed by WestEd, a consulting firm hired by Cooper to examine public education in North Carolina. WestEd concluded that it would cost $5.6 billion over eight years to fully implement its recommendations.

“My budget fully funds the plan to ensure that every child receives a sound basic education and we know that it’s been a difficult couple of years for students, parents and staff,” Cooper said. “Children and educators are working hard to catch up on studies and they need more support.”

The Leandro conflict commenced nearly three decades ago, when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties joined Halifax in the lawsuit.

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.

The State Supreme Court is preparing to take up the case again after former Leandro judge David Lee ordered lawmakers to transfer $1.7 billion from its coffers to pay for the first two years of the remedial plan. Republican lawmakers contend the lower court doesn’t have the authority to order such a transfer. They also disagree with Democratic colleagues about how much of the $1.7 billion Lee ordered transferred is included in the current budget.

Teachers would also see bigger raises and master’s pay would be restored under Cooper’s proposal, which is essentially a revision of the second year of the state’s biennium budget lawmakers approved last year.

North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature ended salary increases for educators with advanced degrees in 2013, contending there is no evidence that teachers with master’s degrees help improve student test scores. Critics of the move say it has made it tougher for the state to recruit and retain quality educators.

Here are the expected impacts of Cooper’s proposed investment in education:

  • Ensure all teachers receive at least a 7.5% raise over the biennium.
  • Support up to 535 additional Teaching Fellows with forgivable loans.
  • Provide up to 97,500 students with no co-pay, free school meals.
  • Increase NC Pre-K reimbursement rates by 19%, and administrative reimbursement rates from 6% to 10%.
  • Expand Smart Start services statewide and strengthen the Early Intervention program with increased staffing and professional development.
  • Expand the Child Care WAGE$ program statewide to improve pay for early childhood educators.

Here’s the governor’s full budget proposal.

Tamika Walker Kelly

N.C. Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly applauded Cooper’s revised spending plan.

“Among the highlights of Gov. Cooper’s budget proposal are much-needed salary increases and adjustments for educators, as well as a commitment to fund Leandro in its third year while providing $180 million in support to at-risk and low-income students,” Kelly said. “Given the latest state revenue projections, we feel confident that these are achievable goals.”

The state expects a $4 billion surplus this fiscal year and nearly $2 billion next year, according to a revenue forecast released this week by the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division and Office of State Budget and Management.

The state’s Republican leadership has not responded to Cooper’s proposal. The Raleigh News & Observer reported Senate Leader Phil Berger will address the proposal next week in the short session, which begins Wednesday.

State Board of Education terminates Torchlight Academy’s charter. School will close for good June 30.

As was expected, the State Board of Education on Thursday unanimously agreed to terminate Torchlight Academy’s charter due to ongoing concerns about the school’s finances and governance.

The board’s decision means more than 500 K-8 students from Wake and surrounding counties will be forced to find new schools in the fall. The school will close on June 30.

State Board member Amy White, chair of the board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee (EICS), said the committee considered recommending the immediate closure of the school, which had been managed by Raleigh businessman Don McQueen through his Education Management Organization (EMO), Torchlight Academy Schools LLC.

State Board of Education member Amy White

White said the EICS panel recommended allowing the school to remain open until the end of next month because it has confidence that interim school leader Randy Bridges would work with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) to minimize disruptions and ensure “consistency” in the delivery of state testing as the school year comes to a close.

“We felt like Dr. Randy Bridges would be able to provide that security and we voted to allow them to continue to the end of the [fiscal] year,” White said.

Last month, the state board did order the immediate closure of Three Rivers Academy, a small charter school of about 90 students in Bertie County that was also managed by McQueen’s EMO. An NCDPI investigation turned up many of the same financial and governance issues at Three Rivers found at Torchlight Academy.

The state board voted in March to revoke Torchlight’s charter. The school’s board withdrew its appeal of that decision in favor of last week’s informal hearing before the EICS panel to make a case for being allowed to keep the school open.

Bridges told the panel that only 10 of the 153 families that responded to a survey question about whether they planned to return to the school next fall, said they would not. He said many families had already started the application process, and enrollment was expected to reach 500 next school year.

The board also shared plans to replace the entire Torchlight board within a year. The board has been criticized for failing to adequately oversee school finances and operations.

White shared these concerns about Torchlight:

  • Ongoing concerns regarding the current and future financial health of the school.
  • Continued concerns about the board of directors’ ability to provide oversight and leadership necessary to correct the contractual, education and fiscal mismanagement.
  • Significant concerns regarding the school’s ability to meet and serve the needs of exceptional children for both compensatory education and daily instructional delivery.

Don McQueen

As Policy Watch previously reported, the Torchlight board ended its relationship with the McQueens after NCDPI officials uncovered numerous fiscal and governance issues at the school, including serious misconduct in its special education program, which was led by the McQueens’ daughter, Shawntrice Andrews.

State records show Andrews altered students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents in a student data management system monitored by the state, which is a violation of federal law. An IEP ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

Sherry Thomas, director of the Exception Children Division at NCDPI, told the EICS panel last week that she remains concerned about the school’s ability to provide students with needed services, despite efforts to correct problems in the program.

“I still don’t have confidence that there is a strong understanding and a strong director in the school of special education that will help correct the practices, and that’s the problem,” Thomas said. “It’s not fixing a piece of paper.”

The school’s board also fired Andrews’ husband, Aaron Andrews, who was listed on the school’s staff roster as a teacher’s assistant. It also ended a lucrative janitorial contract the McQueens dealt their son-in-law to clean a portion of the school used for a federally funded after-school program.

NCDPI records show that the McQueens paid their son-in-law $20,000 a month to clean a portion of the school being used by the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Center program, Policy Watch previously reported. Such centers provide children in high-poverty, low-performing schools academic help during non-school hours. Aaron Andrews’ custodial firm, Luv Lee Sanitation, was responsible for cleaning the six classrooms and common areas used exclusively by the program. The contract was signed by Cynthia McQueen.

Torchlight’s audits show that the McQueens received $1.8 million in management fees in 2016 and 2017, which were by far the two most profitable years. The fee dropped dramatically in subsequent years to $340,000 in 2018, $357,000 in 2019, $347,125 in 2020, and $365,922 in 2021.

A recent audit shows that the McQueens, who were both employed by the school and owned the firm that managed it, gave themselves hefty raises. Each was paid $160,000 during the 2020-21 school year, a $60,000 increase over the $100,000 each reportedly received the year before.

The Torchlight board’s attorney, Stephon Bowens, told the EICS panel that the board is working hard to “recapture” public money the McQueens’ misspent.

“There is a real possibility there might be litigation,” Bowens said.

War in Ukraine has made school buses expensive to operate

School busesRussia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has sent fuel prices through the roof. As a result, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) is prepared to ask state lawmakers for an additional $32 million in the upcoming short session to ensure school districts have enough diesel to power buses next school year.

The state’s two-year budget assumes diesel costs at $2.30 per gallon.

“That’s not the reality right now,” Jamey Falkenbury, NCDPI director of legislative and community affairs, told the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

The estimated cost per gallon was about $3.50 per gallon last week and $­4.35 this week, according to data provided by NCDPI. Every 10 cents increase per gallon costs the state an additional $2 million, Falkenbury said.

“This $32 million reflects the increase in gas prices that we currently have right now and we will continue conversations with the General Assembly and the OSBM (Office of State Budget and Management) to see where we’re at during the summer once the budget is proposed and finalized,” Falkenbury said.

The $32 million to cover higher fuel costs is more than half of the $59.1 million in legislative priorities NCDPI plans to ask lawmakers to fund.

Here’s the department’s complete list of short session priorities:

Lottery funded grant awards to aid school construction projects in ‘economically distressed’ counties

More than two dozen school districts in “economically distressed” counties will share a $400 million state lottery windfall to replace and repair aging school buildings, the NC Department of Public Instruction announced Tuesday.

The grants are awarded under the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund. They will help to build 14 new or replacement school buildings, including four high schools, a Career and Technical Education Center and a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school.

The grants represent the largest annual allocation under the program, created by the General Assembly in 2017 from state lottery revenues. The grants are in addition to the state’s lottery-supported Public School Building Capital Fund, from which all districts receive an allocation each year.

Last year, the state’s public schools estimated that they need $12.8 billion over the next five years to improve or repair aging school facilities. That was nearly $5 billion more than districts said they needed in 2016.

In a news release, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said the needs-based grants are a key support for districts where local tax resources fall short of needs for modernizing or replacing aging school facilities.

“Just as all students in North Carolina need an excellent teacher in every classroom,” Truitt said. “students and teachers need high quality schools in good repair that help support learning. These needs-based grants are an important boost for many districts and communities – and most importantly, their students.”

Grant awards are capped at maximums of $30 million for a new elementary school, $40 million for a middle school and $50 million for a new high school.

The needs-based grant applications were reviewed by the state Department of Public Instruction based on priorities provided in the law, including ability to generate revenue, high debt-to-tax revenue ratio and the extent to which a project will address critical deficiencies in adequately serving the current and future student population.

Halifax County Schools, one of the districts in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit, will receive a $31.27 million award to build a new school.

“We are grateful for the approval of the grant to build a new school in the Eastman area to serve our students,” said Superintendent Eric Cunningham. “This was a dream of our past board member Mrs. Susie Lynch Evans; she worked on these plans for many years; even though she is no longer with us, we are looking forward to moving on with the building plans.”

Mrs. Evans died in January.

Over the last five years, the Needs Based Public School Capital Fund has awarded a total of $739 million dollars to local school districts, providing funding for 60 new K-12 construction projects, including 33 new schools, eight new buildings and the replacement of 44 existing schools.

Districts awarded grants for 2021-22 include:

  • Alexander County Schools: $1.35 million
  • Anson County Schools: $9 million
  • Ashe County Schools: $17 million
  • Bladen County Schools: $17 million
  • Camden County Schools: $27.7 million
  • Carteret County Public Schools: $1.93 million
  • Newton-Conover City Schools (Catawba County): $22 million
  • Edenton-Chowan Schools (Chowan County): $25 million
  • Clay County Schools: $32 million
  • Cleveland County Schools: $7.8 million
  • Gates County Schools: $1.78 million
  • Halifax County Schools: $31.27 million
  • Hoke County Schools: $30 million
  • Mooresville Graded School District (Iredell County): $616,000
  • Mitchell County Schools: $17 million
  • Montgomery County Schools: $2.65 million
  • Northampton County Schools: $40 million
  • Polk County Schools: $1.3 million
  • Public Schools of Robeson County: $25 million
  • Clinton City Schools (Sampson County): $899,000
  • Scotland County Schools: $1.1 million
  • Mount Airy City Schools (Surry County): $1.75 million
  • Tyrrell County Schools: $514,000
  • Warren County Schools: $24 million
  • Washington County Schools: $40 million
  • Wayne County Public Schools: $9 million
  • Yadkin County Schools: $1.44 million
  • Yancey County Schools: $6.69 million

 See more detail about each district’s grants here.