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

Critics contend state budget proposal misses the mark on education

NC Association of Educator’s President Tamika Walker Kelly promised Monday to go over the state compromise budget with a “fine-tooth” comb.

Kelly quickly identified one point of concern — $2 billion in new tax cuts — shortly after the $25.9 billion budget proposal for the current fiscal year was released.

“That’s a choice to prioritize tax cuts over complying with the court-mandated constitutional requirement to fund public education,” Kelly said in a statement.

Tamika Walker Kelly

The second year of the biennium calls for $27 billion in spending. K-12 schools is set to receive $10.6 billion in funding this fiscal year and $10.9 billion the next.

Kelly said the NCAE will quickly review the budget to “understand the details” but that review will likely come too late to sway House and Senate votes or to stop Gov. Roy Cooper from signing it into law before the end of the week.

“I will sign this budget because, on balance, the good outweighs the bad,” Cooper said in a statement Tuesday. “It moves North Carolina forward in important ways, many that are critical to our state’s progress as we are emerging from this pandemic.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper acknowledged that the budget “missed opportunities and contains some misguided policy.”

But he said it’s also a “budget we desperately need at this unique time in the history of our state.”

Meanwhile, the Budget and Tax Center, sent an action alert urging its supporters to call lawmakers and demand they reject the compromise budget. The Center is a project of the NC Justice Center. Policy Watch is also a project of the Justice Center.

“The conference report has deep income tax cuts that will benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations, costing the state more than $8 billion annually in revenue when fully in effect,” the statement said. “It won’t provide people with affordable health care or fund the constitutional obligation the state has to provide a sound, basic education to every child.”

The plan phases out the corporate income tax over six years and lowers the personal income rate.

The constitutional requirement to which Kelly and the Budget & Tax Center referred is the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit in which the state Supreme Court twice found that North Carolina has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide children of the state with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

The $2 billion in new tax cuts Kelly referenced is just short of the $1.7 billion consultants hired by Superior Court Judge David Lee, the judge overseeing the case, said is needed to pay for the next two years of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. The plan to improve the state’s K-12 schools has been endorsed by the plaintiffs and defendants in the Leandro case as well as the State Board of Education.

Last week, Lee ordered the state to take $1.7 billion from its reserves to pay for the plan, which calls for a competent, well-trained teacher in every classroom; a competent, well-trained principal in every school, and additional resources to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among other measures such as providing extra money to help school districts in low-wealth counties improve academic outcomes for students.

Kelly said it’s clear the state has the money to pay for “meaningful raises, student services, adequately resourced classrooms and more.”

The Leandro case isn’t mentioned but some budget line items do address recommendations in the remedial plan.

For example, the budget proposal calls for 5% raises over the next two years for teachers and other state employees. The remedial plan called for raises 5% raises this year.

Additionally, districts in 95 low-wealth counties would share $100 million in recurring funds to supplement teacher pay. A supplement is the extra pay teachers receive on top of state salaries. It is usually paid out of local coffers.

Low-wealth, rural counties find it difficult to recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers because they often can’t match higher supplements paid by wealthier, urban districts.

The five counties not eligible for low-wealth supplemental funding are Buncombe, Durham, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Wake. All are urban, Democratic counties.

“It’s not the way I would have written it, and I think all of the counties need to be part of that process,” Cooper said during an afternoon press conference. “I’ll keep fighting for them.”

He noted, however, that Leandro v. State of North Carolina was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

“Many of these poorer counties don’t have the tax base to give these teachers the kind of supplement they need to keep them in the district,” Cooper said. “Even though this fund is not as fair as it could be, I think it will go toward helping more teachers get pay raises across the state, particularly in our poorer districts.”

Leandro judge orders state to fund $1.7B school improvement plan

Attorneys in the Leandro school funding case wait for Judge David Lee to sign a court order.

The judge overseeing the state’s long-running school funding case on Wednesday ordered lawmakers to take $1.7 billion from North Carolina’s $6 billion or more savings account to pay for the next two years of a comprehensive public-school improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee said the state’s children can no longer wait to receive the sound basic education the state’s Constitution guarantees. The court, he said, has waited 17 years for the General Assembly to meet the constitutional mandate.

“The court’s deference is at an end at this point,” Lee said.

Judge David Lee

Lee’s order won’t go into effect for 30 days. The state’s Republican-led General Assembly contends Lee doesn’t have the authority to force lawmakers to spend money and will likely contest the order.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, called Lee a “rogue judge.”

“Special Superior Court Judge David Lee has signaled his intent to circumvent the authority of the General Assembly by ordering the transfer of funds outside the appropriations process,” Moore said in a press release. “Judge Lee’s actions would be a clear violation of the North Carolina constitution.”

Lee said the focus must remain on the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students.

“This case is not about the judge, it is not about the legislature, it is not about the attorneys; it’s about these children and what’s going to be necessary to achieve the Leandro-mandate education in this state,” Lee said.

He also said the state Constitution gives the courts the authority to act when other branches of government fail to meet their constitutional obligation.

That point was made earlier this week by State Attorney General Josh Stein who issued a Memorandum of Law on behalf of the state affirming the court’s authority to issue such an order.

“If there exists a conflict between legislation and the Constitution, it is acknowledged that the Court ‘must determine the rights and liabilities or duties of the litigants before it in accordance with the Constitution, because the Constitution is the superior rule of law in that situation,’ ” Stein wrote, citing Green v. Eure (1975).

Speaker Tim Moore

Moore was critical of Stein’s memorandum.

“The North Carolina Constitution gives the General Assembly the exclusive authority to appropriate funds,” he said. “Any attempt to circumvent the legislature in this regard would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response.”

Judge Lee has been overseeing the state’s landmark school funding case – Leandro v. State of North Carolina – that was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

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.

Schnika Pender

Schnika Pender, an original plaintiff in the lawsuit, applauded Lee’s order.

“This is one change for North Carolina to properly fund education and give it the priority it deserves,” Pender said. “The children of North Carolina deserve this constitutional right. Our future depends on it.”

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.

Lee said he doesn’t know of any other plan developed by lawmakers to address the constitutional mandate.

He noted that the state has the financial wherewithal to easily pay for the next two years of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan submitted to the court in March and signed by Lee in June.

Many of the recommendations in the comprehensive plan target children at risk of academic failure, Lee said.

“This case is about children who are from high poverty, low-performing districts in the area of our state who aren’t given a fair opportunity to get a sound basic education,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, from the numbers that I have seen, the sheer numbers of those students has increased dramatically and continues to do so. So, in that sense, it’s a runaway train.”

Mary Ann Wolf, President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of NC, said Lee’s “historic” order provides critical investments for students and schools that will ultimately flow to communities and our economy.

“This includes research-based investments in human resources, greater access to educational opportunities, and improvements to the accountability and finance systems that impact education every day,” Wolf said.  “The people of North Carolina made a commitment to a sound basic education for each student by way of our state’s constitution, and these investments ensure that our schools and our students have what they need to reach their potential.”

Democrats, educators say lawmakers have a ‘moral obligation’ to fund the Leandro school improvement plan

Judge David Lee

Fully funding the Leandro school improvement plan is a moral obligation, Senate Democrats and educators said Tuesday.

The message directed at the Republican-led General Assembly comes a day before Superior Court Judge David Lee is expected to sign a court order compelling the state to hand over $1.7 billion from its rainy-day account to pay for a comprehensive education improvement plan.

Gladys Robinson

State Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, said lawmakers have failed the children of North Carolina by not adequately funding public education.

“This case [Leandro] and the actions that the court will take this week are about more than our constitutional obligations; it is a moral obligation,” Robinson said.

Judge Lee is overseeing the state’s landmark school funding case – Leandro v. State of North Carolina – that was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

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.

State Republicans don’t believe Lee has the authority to compel the legislature to fund the improvement plan.

“The legislature’s main objection is that the judiciary does not have the legal authority to decide how taxpayer dollars are spent and what policies get enacted into law. The legislature also disagrees with some of the budget and policy items the judge will attempt to order into law,” State Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, said in a Leandro explainer posted on his web page.

But State Attorney General Josh Stein issued a Memorandum of Law on behalf of the state affirming the court’s authority to issue such an order.

“If there exists a conflict between legislation and the Constitution, it is acknowledged that the Court ‘must determine the rights and liabilities or duties of the litigants before it in accordance with the Constitution, because the Constitution is the superior rule of law in that situation,’ ” Stein wrote, citing Green v. Eure (1975).

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri

Senator Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County, said the state’s Republican leadership has “thumbed its nose” at the court and the judiciary.

“Senator [Phil] Berger has argued that Judge Lee’s motion is a violation of the separation of powers, but the failure to comply with Judge Lee’s order is the real constitutional violation that separates our school children from the real chance to achieve the American dream,” Chaudhuri said.

The judiciary has a duty to determine whether the executive or legislative branches of government have run afoul of the constitution, Chaudhuri said.

“We continue to deny and delay our school children a chance to receive a sound basic education, a missed opportunity that has been going on now for more than two decades and has denied a generation of our school children that chance already,” he said.

The state currently has the resources to easily fund the next two years of the school improvement plan, Chaudhuri added, noting a budget surplus of more than $8 billion.

Sen. Sarah Crawford, a Democrat from Wake County, said the shortage of school bus drivers and teachers are evidence the state has not made adequate investments in public education. Crumbling infrastructure and poor ventilation systems also have been brought to light by the pandemic, she said.

“Education is where we deliver on the promise of equality as a nation and a state,” Crawford said. “The Leandro plan gives us a solid roadmap so that every child has access to the education that they, not only need but deserve,” Crawford said.

Brian Proffitt, vice president of the NC Association of Educators, said educators haven’t felt appreciated the past decade under GOP control of the state legislature.

“Our jobs have always been the toughest on the planet, but the last decade, however, has been brutal,” said Proffitt, a high school history teacher. “The impact of underfunding, the privatization agenda of certain politicians in our state legislature finally hit a tipping point.”

The result, Proffitt said, has been more educators leaving the profession.

He shared a story about a Currituck County teacher who paid out-of-pocket to furnish a mobile classroom. The teacher was also forced to clean the bathroom and classroom. Read more

Judge in Leandro school funding case could order lawmakers to fund $1.7 billion improvement plan on Wednesday

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running school funding case could order the state to hand over $1.7 billion from the state’s rainy-day account to pay for the next two years of a comprehensive education improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee could enforce the $1.7 billion plan recommended by plaintiffs in decades-old Leandro v. State of North Carolina during a court hearing Wednesday.

“To allow the State to indefinitely delay funding for a Leandro remedy when adequate revenues exist would effectively deny the existence of a constitutional right to a sound basic education and effectively render the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s Leandro decisions meaningless,” the order reads.

The state currently has a $6 billion budget surplus.

The Leandro case was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

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 school improvement plan is based on that report.

WestEd’s recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources necessary to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

Under the plan proposed by the plaintiffs, the state’s public schools would receive $1.5 billion, $190 million would go to the Department of Health and Human Services and $41 million to the UNC System.

The state’s Republican leadership has questioned whether Lee has the authority to issue an order forcing the state to fund the school improvement plan.

The judge will order the spending despite the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling as recently as 2020 that “the power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly,” Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, said in a statement.

Berger referenced a report by WRAL-TV that found Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration paid most of the $2 million for the WestEd report. He contends the defendants and the plaintiffs in the case are political allies.

“They paid a group of consultants to recommend a spending plan favored by and funded by the Cooper Administration, and they found an unelected judge to order the spending over the objections of the legislature,” Berger said.

The state is without a budget as Lee considers the court order.

On Monday, State Superintendent Catherine urged lawmakers to quickly reach an agreement on a budget that includes funding to address challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I like to think there is widespread agreement that perfect cannot be the enemy of the good and while more can be done with more resources, $330 million dollars to address unfinished learning and issues stemming from COVID-19 school years is better than $0 dollars; a 3%, 5% or 10% raise for teachers is undoubtedly better than no raise; and roughly $80 million in funding to modernize school business platforms and provide cyber security to PSUs [school districts] across our state is much better than $0,” Truitt said.

The superintendent said “many crises” loom in K-12 education if a budget isn’t passed.

Licensure system and human resources management systems and other such contracts will soon expire and the burden of paying them could shift to school districts if a budget isn’t approved, Truitt said.

“While I understand that negotiations continue to play out, I want to make it clear that the Department of Public Instruction – and NC’s K-12 education system at large – is facing considerable obstacles while we wait in limbo.,” she said “If a budget is not signed, hardship will be experienced, yet again, across our state with severe implications for our students, our teachers, and our school support staff.”

She asked lawmakers to remove politics from the budget process.

“If both branches of government are unable to reach a compromise, my hope is that a budget can still be put forth for a vote,” Truitt said. “Should this vote come to fruition, I would hope that no pressure be applied to legislators in voting for or against it, as they should be allowed to represent their constituents rather than feel pressured to support a political party.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt: Vaccination requirement a ‘clear example of government overreach’

Catherine Truitt

A new federal rule requiring companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 or test negative for COVID-19 once a week is a “clear example of government overreach,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said in a statement Thursday.

Truitt’s criticism came shortly after the new rule was issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It’s part of President’s Joe Biden’s plan to slow the spread of COVID-19 by requiring workers to get vaccinated.

The new emergency temporary standard will protect more than 84 million workers from the spread on the coronavirus, federal officials said.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, and we continue to see dangerous levels of cases,” U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement. “We must take action to implement this emergency temporary standard to contain the virus and protect people in the workplace against the grave danger of COVID-19.

School districts with 100 or more employees are covered by the new OSHA standard.

Truitt, a breast cancer survivor and an asthmatic, said she will continue to encourage North Carolinians to get vaccinated.

“I’ve repeatedly shared that we need students in the classroom learning in a face-to-face environment and the best way to maintain this is through vaccination,” she said. “However, the federal government’s decision to mandate vaccination is one of the clearest examples of government overreach and one of the purest attacks on personal choice. I’ve always maintained these decisions are best made by an individual, or parents, and in tandem with a trusted health care provider.”

Truitt said North Carolina’s public school system is already facing severe hardship and staffing challenges as a result of the pandemic. The mandate has the potential to exacerbate those concerns, she said.

“In the coming days, our Department looks forward to working with the North Carolina Department of Labor and Commissioner Josh Dobson as he seeks to implement a plan that is right for North Carolina,” Truitt said.

The new rules requires employers to provide paid time to workers to get vaccinated and to allow for paid leave to recover from any side effects.

The emergency temporary standard does not require employers to pay for testing. Employers, however, may be required to pay for testing to comply with other laws, regulations, collective bargaining agreements, or other collectively negotiated agreements.

The new standard requires:

  • Employers to determine the vaccination status of each employee, obtain acceptable proof of vaccination status from vaccinated employees and maintain records and a roster of each employee’s vaccination status.
  • Employees to provide prompt notice when they test positive for COVID-19 or receive a COVID-19 diagnosis. Employers must then remove the employee from the workplace, regardless of vaccination status; employers must not allow them to return to work until they meet required criteria.
  • Employers to ensure each worker who is not fully vaccinated is tested for COVID-19 at least weekly (if the worker is in the workplace at least once a week) or within seven days before returning to work (if the worker is away from the workplace for a week or longer).
  • Employers to ensure that in most circumstances, each employee who has not been fully vaccinated wears a face covering when indoors or when occupying a vehicle with another person for work purposes.