Higher Ed, News

Watchdog files complaint over NC Heritage PAC, Sons of Confederate Veterans

Citizen watchdog Bob Hall filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections Wednesday alleging the NC Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans illegally financed a political action committee that attributed donations to individuals who were not true donors and filed false campaign finance disclosure reports with the state board.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have come under increased scrutiny since the controversial UNC Board of Governors settlement that gave the group the Silent Sam Confederate monument, $2.5 million in a non-profit trust and  a separate $74,999 payment to assure that the group would not use Confederate flags in on-campus protests.

Hall’s complaint is based partially on reporting by The Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, in which unnamed members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans group described potentially illegal actions by the group in the creation and funding of the NC Heritage PAC. In his complaint Hall says he has also spoken with members of the group, which he does not name, who have given him further details about the dealings of the group and the PAC.

The DTH Media Corporation, the non-profit that operates The Daily Tar Heel, has also sued the UNC Board of Governors over the controversial Silent Sam settlement, alleging violations of the state open meetings law.

Hall’s complaint asks for a comprehensive investigation and that the board of elections terminate the NC Heritage PAC and require state legislators, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and various political campaigns to return $28,500 given by the PAC. Among the legislators who received funds from the PAC are Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, each of whom received $2,500 from the PAC.

 

 

Read the entire complaint here.

Higher Ed, News

Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weigh in on state budget stalemate

The Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weighed in on the state budget stalemate Tuesday, passing a resolution calling on lawmakers to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper’s  veto of the budget passed by the General Assembly’s Republican majority.

The move comes after last week’s meeting of the the UNC Board of Governors where that board passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget – the subject of a months’ long political struggle between Cooper, a Democrat, and the legislative Republicans.

The board of governors’ resolution called for “all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical.”

Western Carolina appears to be the first university whose board of trustees has done so.

The resolution was passed in a special telephone meeting of the board Tuesday afternoon. One board member was absent, two abstained and all others voted to approve the resolution.

The UNC Board of Governors is appointed by the Republican dominated state House and Senate. The board of governors in turn appoint members of the boards of trustees of the UNC system’s constituent schools. The current, 24-member board of governors is entirely composed of members who are Republican or unaffiliated. No Democrats serve on the board.

 

Education

There’s movement in the Leandro case. Attorneys for defendants, plaintiffs agree to work to improve K-12 education

Superior Court Judge David Lee

The defendants and plaintiffs in the quarter-century-old Leandro case have agreed to work together to create a plan to improve K-12 education in North Carolina.

Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order Monday, and gave attorneys 60 days to submit a plan that spells out how the parties intend to meet the short-term goals recommended in the West Ed report released in December. Plans to meet longer-term goals will come later.

WestEd, an independent consultant, was ordered by Lee to conduct extensive research into the state’s public education system and to bring back recommendations for improvement. Its report will serve as the framework for the attorney’s plan.

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the State Supreme Court stepped in and held that every child has a right to a “sound, basic education under the state constitution.

The WestEd recommendations carry a hefty price tag of more than $8 billion over the next eight years.

Lee said he’s bound by law to ensure the state lives up to its constitutional obligations.

“To me that means I’m also bound by what the state Supreme Court said back there in 1997 and that is, if somebody else doesn’t do it, the court has to do it, ill equipped though it may be.” Lee said. “I think I would be dodging my constitutional duty if I didn’t push this and do what needs to be done. I’m not afraid to do that.”

See the full story Wednesday at ncpolicywatch.com

Education, News

After a five-day hearing, a decision in Istation case is still weeks away

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

It’ll be more than five weeks before a decision is made on the fate of the controversial contract award to Istation to assess reading levels of the state’s K-3 students.

After a five-day hearing about the award, Jonathan Shaw, the general counsel for the Department of Information Technology (DIT) who presided over the hearing, granted the court reporter two weeks to transcribe recordings and attorneys three weeks to respond with proposed decisions.

On Friday, Tymica Dunn, procurement manager for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, spent several hours answering questions about the state procurement process, particularly about how the criteria for the reading assessment tool changed after a Request for Proposal (RFP) was cancelled and DPI entered directly into negotiation with Istation and Amplify.

A day earlier, Amplify CEO and co-founder Larry Berger testified that he believed the evaluation criteria for the state’s reading assessment tool was changed to disadvantage his firm.

Berger contended that during the RFP process an evaluation committee ranked Amplify above Istation and two other competitors for the lucrative state contract worth millions to the winning bidder.

Amplify CEO Larry Berger

But he said the evaluation criteria from the RFP to the negotiation phase was changed to make criteria less favorable to Amplify more important.

Cost, for example, was ranked highest in the negotiation phase but carried a lower ranking during the RFP process.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson eventually awarded Istation the contract, worth $8.3 million, Amplify’s bid was much higher, around $12 million. (Both firms eventually lowered prices during the negotiation phase but Istation’s remained low-bidder).

Amplify filed a protest after Johnson awarded Istation the contract. That led to this week’s hearing to determine whether DPI acted properly in the contract award.

Dunn was relatively new in her job as procurement manager when the reading assessment RFP fell into her lap.

DPI Procurement Manager Tymica Dunn

So, when the RFP reached the brink of cancellation after an evaluation committee formed to weigh proposals couldn’t reach consensus, Dunn asked officials with the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) for advice.

She said Pattie Bowers, director of procurement for DIT, told her and a colleague that the criteria could change in the negotiation phase because it would become a new procurement.

Mitch Armbruster, lead attorney for Amplify, said changing the criteria, and then not notifying his client about it, was unfair. Berger testified that he was never told about the changes.

One interesting development during hearing involved a discussion earlier in the week about the way DPI and State Superintendent Mark Johnson learned about an evaluation committee member’s breach of confidentiality, which played a part in the cancellation of one reading assessment RFP.

It’s been alleged that someone illegally monitored a former employee’s email that was still attached to her cell phone. The former employee received email messages discussing the procurement process from a member of the evaluation committee selected to evaluate reading diagnostic tools.

A printed copy of the exchange was slipped to DPI staffers who turned it over to Johnson.

DPI spokesman Graham Wilson confirmed in an email message that DPI is investigating the claim.

“We do not know where the text message came from,” Wilson said. “We are conducting an investigation to try to find out.” Read more

Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors silent on Silent Sam, calls on legislators to pass state budget

In its first full, in-person meeting since its controversial Silent Sam settlement, the UNC Board of Governors made no comment on the issue or the lawsuits and legal actions stemming from it.

Citing pending litigation, board Chairman Randy Ramsey and Interim UNC System President Bill Roper declined all questions on the matter.

Instead, at its Friday meeting, the board took aim at another contentious political issue: the state budget stalemate.

The UNC Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget – the subject of a months’ long stalemate between Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislators who have been unable to overturn his budget veto.

The legislature adjourned this week without resolving the budget stalemate, with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger saying it’s possible no new state budget will be passed this fiscal year or next.

The board’s resolution lists the ways in which the current budget would be beneficial to the system and the potential harms of continuing without a new budget.

The resolution goes on to say that the proposed budget would provide an approximate four percent raise to faculty and staff over the next two year while the absence of a new budget “hurts UNC System institutions, faculty, students, and the communities we serve, and threatens the ability of the University to serve the citizens of the State and contribute to the economic vitality of North Carolina.”

The board’s resolution “strongly encourages all elected leaders who support and value the world class higher educational systems inNorth Carolina to move swiftly to enact House Bill 966 and approve with the provisions originally included inSenate Bill 354. Further, we call on all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical.”

Board member Marty Kotis pushed for the resolution — something he said had been discussed during the budget fight but seemed essential with the legislature adjourning without a solution.

Forget Rs and Ds,” Kotis said. “This is about the university system right here. This really isn’t a political issue.”

The resolution does urge lawmakers to pass the budget promoted and passed by Republican lawmakers rather than to compromise and find a solution that would allow the state to expand Medicaid, as Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats in the General Assembly would prefer. But Kotis said that’s because the proposed budget is very advantageous to the university system and it’s not clear what a different budget would mean for the system.

“This one happens to favor the university system very well,” Kotis said. “But it’s a budget – it’s about spending money and there’s only finite resources. If you don’t pass this and someone else wants something else, things can shift. If it changes and there are other priorities, I’d hate to see that.”

Kotis said he hopes a Democratic Senator will break with with the party and vote with Republicans to overturn the governor’s veto.

I am hopeful there will be one Senator out there that puts the budget over politics and supports the university,” Kotis siad. “Maybe that’s because I’m more of a Maverick and I break ranks every day. But this is important for the university and impacts so many areas throughout the state. There are so many wonderful things for so many areas and so much that will be hurt if we don’t pass it. So I would hope there would be one person.”