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

Department of Public Instruction, state agencies would study trade jobs under House Bill 282

A bill requiring state agencies and departments to study how North Carolinians enter trades such as plumbing and welding received a favorable report Tuesday in the House Commerce Committee.

House Bill 282 titled “An Act to Compile Information Regarding the Trades Workforce and Future Training” would require the Department of Public Instruction and other agencies to produce reports that examine educational and experience requirements to become fully licensed in the trades. 

Later Tuesday, a preferred committee substitute to the bill received a favorable report in the House Rules Committee.

Rep. Matthew Winslow, a Franklin County and the bill’s primary sponsor, said the examination is needed to improve pathways for students and others to gain the skills needed for good-paying jobs in trades experiencing severe shortages. 

Winslow said students in foster care could especially benefit from opportunities to acquire skills to perform such jobs.

HB 282 would require agencies and departments to look at establishing high school programs for students to study the trades and whether those programs should include residency options.  

“By the age of 15, most kids in foster care are pretty much adults,” Winslow said. “They know how to do things on their own and now they are just trying to get to a point where they graduate. I would much rather give them an option where they can go some place, go to school for 11th and 12th grade and have an option for a program in the trade school study area.”  

The Commissioner of Labor, Commissioner of Insurance, the Department of Commerce, the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System would all be required to examine the trades and to file reports with the state’s Fiscal Research Division.

The reports must include the number of current workers in the trades and projected labor force needs for the next five to 25 years. An examination of current options for high school students to enter the trades would also be required under HB 282.

In addition to plumbing and welding, the agencies and departments would take a look at licensure requirements and pathways to becoming electricians and heating and air conditioning technicians.

Steve Tyson, a Craven County Republican, said the studies will help the state develop solutions to fill vacancies in critical jobs. 

“When I got into the construction business in the early 1980s, we had a deep bench,” Tyson said. “There were a lot of young people who didn’t mind working with their hands and now they’re aging out just like I am. But there is a need, there’s a demand and the pay is pretty good.”

Superior Court Judge James Ammons could decide Leandro funding issue in two weeks

Superior Court Judge James Ammons

Superior Court Judge James Ammons, who is overseeing the long-running Leandro school funding case, could decide in two weeks how much money the state must turnover to North Carolina’s public schools to pay of years two and three of a school improvement plan.

On Friday, Ammons listened to attorneys in the decades-old case debate the amount they believe the state’s school children are owed. A previous judge overseeing the case ordered the state to spend $1.75 billion to implement year two and three of what is known as the Comprehensive Remedial Plan (CRP).

Attorneys on both sides of the case agree that some of that amount was funded ion the state’s 2022 budget. The disagree, however, about how much more money the state must turnover to comply with the earlier court order.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs believe the amount is $677.8 million.

But Matthew Tilley, an attorney representing Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican and House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, both of who intervened in the case, contends the amount is $633 million or just $377 million if year two of the remedial plan is removed from the equation because it has now passed.

“In addition to omitting various appropriations, OSBM’s [Office of State Budget and Management] calculations fail to account for the fact that roughly 99% of the action items in Year 2 of the CRP call for recurring appropriations for salaries and ongoing programs that are no longer necessary now that we are in Year 3,” Tilley said in his brief.

Scott Bayzle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, disagreed with Tilley’s assessment.

“What it appears the legislative intervenors are also arguing here is that because year two has now passed, we don’t need to consider it,” Bayzle said. “You honor, what that also means is we can delay and let another year go by and we don’t really have to worry about it. But your honor, year two is built on year one and year three is built on year two. If we were to accept that argument, the state would never have to implement the CRP, just delay.”

Ammons told attorneys in the case that they could end the disagreement about how much North Carolina’s school children are owed by agreeing on an amount.

“I always suggest this with every case I try,” Ammons said. “Ya’ll have the power to decide this by agreement. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

N.C. Association of Educators file lawsuit against Gaston County Public Schools over payroll issues

Tamika Walker Kelly

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) has filed a lawsuit against the Gaston County Board of Education over payroll issues that began in early 2022 after the county switched to Oracle, a third-party vendor, to manage and process the district’s payroll.

Since the switch, Gaston County Public Schools (GCPS) employees have complained about discrepancies in pay and retirement and other deductions. Employees have, for example, been underpaid, pre-tax funds haven’t been deducted from checks and workers paid more than their salary and taxed have been asked to repay the money without any accounting, the NCAE said in press release.

“Our members have been greatly affected by this problem and several conversations have taken place with the Gaston County Payroll Department and our attorneys,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NCAE. “The district had more than a year to figure out a solution and make the hardworking employees of Gaston County Public Schools whole. We know with new systems come quirks, and we feel we’ve given them enough time to resolve this issue. We’ve been more than patient.”

Policy Watch was unable to reach Gaston County Board of Education Chairman Jeff Ramsey for comment on Wednesday.

The Gaston Gazette reported Tuesday that GCPS teachers Elisabeth Haywood and Bobbie Cavnar, a former Gaston County Teacher of the Year, are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Haywood alleges that she was overpaid by $17,000 and was forced to pay taxes on the money.

Policy Watch spoke with Cavnar in September about the problems with the payroll system. He said then that his paystub showed $1,600 worth of unexplained deductions, which forced he and his wife to dip into their savings to pay bills.

Bobbie Cavnar in 2018 interview with NC Policy Watch. (Photo:Clayton Henkel)

“We didn’t have to default on anything but there are plenty of teachers who could not weather a month without pay or a $1,500 deduction,” Cavnar said. “We’ve heard stories from teachers who’ve had to help each other out by buying things like grocery gift cards and things like that to kind of weather through.”

Gaston and New Hanover county schools were the first districts among 10 scheduled to pilot the new payroll systems managed by Cherry Road Technologies and Oracle (Gaston) and Tyler Technologies for Munis (New Hanover).

The “modern” systems were mandated by the General Assembly in 2016 with the passage of the School Business Systems Modernization (SBSM) law intended to help districts replace “discontinued and obsolete” systems such as IBM’s AS/400. Eventually, all 115 school districts are expected to upgrade systems for managing financial and payroll information, human resources information and capital and repairs and renovations planning information.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget would fund Leandro comprehensive remedial plan

Gov. Roy Cooper (Photo: Screenshot from press conference.)

Gov. Roy Cooper’s recommended budget for 2023-25 provides $677.8 million to pay for years two and three of a court-ordered school improvement plan stemming from the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit.

Superior Court Judge David Lee, who oversaw the case until March 2022, ordered the state in 2021 to transfer $1.75 billion to pay for the second and third years of an eight-year $5.6 billion plan developed by an outside consultant.

State officials have said that $677 million is what is students are still owed after factoring in funding from the past two budgets.

Lee died in October due to complications from cancer. Chief Justice Paul Newby assigned Superior Court Michael Robinson to the case in March 2022.  Superior Court Judge James Ammons was assigned to the case in December.

Ammon’s has asked defendants and plaintiffs in the case to file briefs explaining their positions on remaining funding amounts in advance of a hearing Friday to discuss how much money must be transferred to fulfill year three of the remedial plan.  

In total, Cooper’s budget provides $4.5 billion to fully fund years four and five of the plan. That includes $2.5 billion to ensue “fair and equitable” distribution of financial resources; $943.5 million to expand early childhood education; $170.5 million to improve the state’s teacher and principal pipelines; $141.4 million to support low-performing schools and districts and $102 million to create guided pathways from high school to postsecondary education and career opportunities.

Cooper, a Democrat, hinted during his State of State address last month that his budget would support fully funding the remedial plan, which calls for high-quality teachers, principals and support staff in all of the state’s public schools.

The governor’s budget includes an additional $1.8 billion to help recruit and retain high-quality teachers and administrators. Teacher and principal pay would increase an average of 18% over the next two years. The pay raise would move North Carolina from 32nd in the nation to 16th in teacher pay, Cooper said. The state would be first in the Southeast in teacher pay if the pay raise is approve, Cooper said.

The budget moves starting teacher salaries to at least $46,000 and increases teacher and school-based administrator salaries by 10% over the next two fiscal years.

“With 5,000 teaching vacancies across our state, we must provide teachers with the pay and respect they so richly deserve,” Cooper said.

Funding for the remedial plan has been a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans, with GOP leaders arguing that the courts do not have the authority to order the state to transfer money to pay for the remedial plan.

The N.C. Supreme Court upheld Lee’s order in November requiring the state to transfer money to pay for years two and three of the remedial plan to bring the state into compliance with its constitutional mandate to provide school children with sound basic education.

Republicans picked up two seats on the state Supreme Court in November. The new GOP majority voted 5-2 to reinstate a lower court order blocking the order that requires the state controller to transfer state money to pay for the remedial plan.

Former State Controller Linda Combs appealed Lee’s order, contending that it would be illegal to transfer money without the General Assembly’s approval. Her successor Nels Roseland has also argued against the transfer of money without lawmakers’ approval.

Roseland contends that “it would be fundamentally unfair for a court to subject him, his staff, and the recipient agency staff to criminal and civil liability before the basic elements of procedural due process were met including notice, an opportunity to respond, counsel, and the right to an appeal including a hearing on these issues.

The Leandro case began 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 County 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.

House committee advances bill to erase language in law describing minor offenses that lead to school suspensions

Rep. Marcia Morey (Right)

A bill stripping language from current law that provides examples of student conduct that’s not serious enough for suspension or expulsion received a favorable hearing Tuesday before the House Standing Committee on Education – K-12.

House Bill 188 removes from state law the use of inappropriate or disrespectful language, noncompliance with a staff directive, dress code violations and minor physical altercations that do not involve weapons or injury as misconduct that is not serious enough to warrant lengthy suspensions or expulsions.

The bill is sponsored by a team of Republicans including committee leaders Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County and Rep. Hugh Blackwell of Burke County. If passed into law, it would give principals and school boards greater authority to suspend or expel students for offenses that a currently not considered serious enough to warrant those actions.

HB 188 was referred to the Judiciary 1 Committee.

Torbett said the state has been too lax the past 20 years in enforcing school discipline.

“Without discipline that effectively addresses the issue, it will ultimately bring down the demise of our civilization because it will begin to spread out into the general population and get worse and worse and worse,” Torbett said.

As it stands, Torbett said, students are allowed to hurl profanity at teachers without fear of punishment.

“Guys, those days have got to stop,” Torbett said.

A proposed amendment offered by Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, to restore the language the bill strikes from law, failed mostly along party lines.

Morey said it’s important that the state provide guidance about what offenses rise to the level of suspension or expulsion.

“I’m asking that we go back to what’s already been in law, which gives guidance to principals and let’s define what are not serious violations,” Morey said.

Torbett urged colleagues to vote against the amendment, arguing that it would gut HB 188.

Rep. Ken Fontenot, a Republican from Wilson, said that whether violations are serious is a matter of perspective.

“Whose to say what is minor when your bully is 6 feet 3 inches [tall] and you happen to be 4 feet 5 inches [tall]?” Fontenot asked. “Minor is a matter of conjecture and subjective ideas.”

Morey countered that long-term suspension aren’t minor and should be reserved for offenses that are more serious than those described in law as too minor to warrant long-term suspension or expulsion.

“We’re just saying that the worst thing a child needs is a long-term suspension if it is a minor offense, a dress code [violation], not getting out of the bus line, that is minor,” Morey said. “Do not allow that to lead to the most draconian punishment of an out-of-school suspension.”

The former juvenile court judge said that students who serve out-of-school suspensions are more likely to become involved in the juvenile court system than those who have not been suspended.

She also noted the racial disparity in school suspensions.

“Students that are suspended are three to four times more likely to be African American and twice more likely to have disabilities,” Morey said. “Let’s use our common sense and call a minor violation what it is.”

The state’s recent Consolidated Data Report on school discipline and violence show that while consistent with pre-pandemic trends, racial minorities, low-income students and males were more likely to face disciplinary actions such as short- or long-term suspensions or placements in alternative schools for disciplinary reasons.

The largest reported increase from the 2018-19 school year was the rate of long-term suspensions among Black students, which was 85 per 100,000 students in 2018-19 and 103 per 100,000 students in 2021-22.

The current law calls on school boards and other K-12 governing bodies to use “best practices to develop and enforce discipline policies that do not discriminate against students on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender or disability.

State officials compared the 2021-22 school year to the pre-pandemic 2018-19 school year because in-person school attendance was in consistent throughout the pandemic.

HB 188 would also require school board or other governing bodies to include measures districts will take to support students during a suspension and to spell out procedures to be followed by school officials when assigning students to in school suspension.

The bill also encourages school officials to consider in-school suspension over punishment that removes a student from school.