Education, News

Report points to financial, legal complications of Matthews charter school battle

Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg

A new report authored by a longtime N.C. General Assembly attorney points to multiple financial and legal complications associated with a controversial proposal to clear a town-run charter school in the Charlotte suburb of Matthews.

Among those complications, the report—written by Gerry Cohen, a former General Assembly lawyer and chief of bill drafting—notes state law bars towns like Matthews from taking on debt to build a municipal charter.

Nor would the town be cleared to use state funds in order to buy land or build a school, meaning the Charlotte suburb would likely have to cough up millions for the school upfront, possibly by raising taxes.

The report claimed significant implications for local teachers’ retirement benefits too.

Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat who opposes the Matthews charter, questioned Monday how a town with a budget of about $23 million would pay for a $30 million school. “I don’t think proponents of this bill have leveled with the people of Matthews about the fiscal realities,” Jackson said.

Last year’s House Bill 514 applies to the Charlotte suburbs of Matthews and Mint Hill, although it has the potential to set the table for similar suburban clashes in large school systems such as Wake County. And, as Policy Watch has reported, it comes laden with concerns about the creation of a predominantly white town splitting off from a decidedly more diverse school system like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). 

Jackson said last year’s bill, co-sponsored by Matthews Republican Bill Brawley, would be a “precedent-setting piece of legislation” if approved by state lawmakers this year.

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg

Cohen’s report was touted Monday in a press conference by critics of the so-called “secession” proposal, chief among them school district leaders in CMS. The former legislative attorney said he was asked to draft the report by CMS lawyer George Battle, although he said he was not directed what to write.

CMS officials have been engaged in a war of words with Matthews town leaders in recent months. Matthews leaders say they want more say in their local schools, as well as a long-term guarantee that the district won’t force student reassignments in order to diversify racially-isolated schools like those found in the city’s predominantly white suburbs.

The progressive N.C. Justice Center issued a report this year that found CMS to be, by far, the most racially segregated district in North Carolina (Disclosure: The Justice Center is Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit).

School district leaders counter that splitting the district would be costly and inefficient, unpopular with Matthews residents, and may only exacerbate segregation worries.

It’s unclear whether Brawley’s draft bill will be a priority for the Republican-led legislature as members ramp up their short session in the coming weeks. The bill swept through the state House last year. But after a study committee led by Brawley this year punted on any specific school system splits, the proposal seemed to lose momentum.

CMS Chair Mary McCray

CMS Board of Education Chair Mary McCray told reporters Monday that the district is speaking out forcefully on House Bill 514 after leaders “made multiple attempts to provide reasonable solutions.”

School board Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek said Cohen’s analysis “could and should cause pause” with lawmakers.

“This bill is a nightmare for taxpayers,” said McCray, arguing that residents of Matthews would be “double-taxed” to support the charter school by both the county district and the town.

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Education, News

Facing a shortage in school nurses, N.C. lawmakers seek new standards

Following a report that details painful school nurse shortages in North Carolina, a state legislative panel will ask for new standards and programs to address the problem.

Members of the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee approved that report and advanced a bill draft Monday that would do several things, but chiefly orders the State Board of Education to ready a new goal for school nurse staffing levels and a plan for meeting those levels by January 2020.

This year’s report from the nonpartisan Program Evaluation Division estimated that it would cost the state between $45 million and $79 million to meet a 1:750 nurse-to-student ratio recommended by the state board in 2004 or the one nurse per school ratio prescribed  by the National Association of School Nurses.

Public school advocates say insufficient nursing levels in schools will spell major problems, particularly for students who lack access to healthcare outside of school.

While the bill draft that advanced out of committee Monday lacks any recommended funding levels, it would direct the state to prepare a plan for combining two school nurse programs—Child and Family Support Teams (CFST) and the School Nurse Funding Initiative (SNFI)—run by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Instruction.

Lawmakers are also moving to address Medicaid reimbursement for school nursing services. This month’s PED report pointed out that about 60 percent of medical procedures performed in schools are done by employees who are not nurses. That’s why few local school systems file for Medicaid reimbursement because, under the state’s Medicaid plan, such care must be provided by a registered nurse as directed by a physician or the students’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The bill draft would require DHHS to examine rates paid for school-based nursing and craft a plan for establishing Medicaid reimbursement for school nursing services. DHHS would have to report to the legislature by December 2018 on these provisions.

Watch here as Liz Newlin of the School Nurses’ Association of N.C. explains the problem facing North Carolina school systems to Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield.

Education, News

Study: More than 90% of U.S. teachers spend their own cash on school supplies

More than 20,000 North Carolina teachers marched in Raleigh Wednesday to demand school funding. (Photo by Billy Ball)

A new study from the U.S. Department of Education says the vast majority of teachers spend their own money on school supplies.

That’s likely no surprise to North Carolina teachers. Many of the 20,000 or so who marched on Raleigh this week spoke openly and often about spending hundreds out of their pockets on school supplies, a reflection of insufficient school funding.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” one first-year teacher, Sari Diaz of Onslow County, told Policy Watch Wednesday.

A report from The Independent breaks down just how common it is for teachers like Diaz to run into this problem in American schools.

From The Independent:

Andy Yung, a nursery teacher in Queens, New York City, is adept at raising money online for ambitious classroom projects, but even he sometimes pays for supplies out of pocket. And he has company.

According to a US federal Department of Education survey released on Tuesday, 94 per cent of public school teachers in the United States reported paying for supplies without reimbursement in the school year that straddled 2014 and 2015.

It made little difference whether they taught in cities, suburbs or rural areas, or whether or not their students were poor — virtually every public school teacher said they had used their own money for their classrooms.

“It’s almost expected, especially in the summer months creeping up into September,” Mr. Yung said. “It’s just something we kind of naturally do.”

The teachers who reported spending their own money on supplies shelled out $479 (£406) each on average, according to the survey. Seven percent reported spending more than $1,000.

The findings, based on a nationally representative sample of tens of thousands of teachers, underscore the demands teachers across the country have been making in recent months amid protests over stagnant pay and underfunding.

The latest took place on Wednesday in North Carolina, where some schools cancelled classes as throngs of teachers and others marched in the capital. Similar rallies have been held this year in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

The protesters have been successful at extracting concessions from conservative lawmakers, though the deals have not always fully met their demands.

On average, public school teachers earned just under $60,000 last school year, according to the National Education Association, but pay is so low in some areas that officials have been recruiting overseas.

Limited budgets and red tape have led some teachers to seek outside funds for classroom projects. Like Mr. Yung, some of them use DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding website where educators can solicit donations for supplies, trips, and other projects.

In March, he raised almost $3,000 for materials to teach his students about insects. The project was a hit, but the children wanted to see live bugs, too.

The cost of the additional materials was less than the DonorsChoose.org $100 (£85) minimum and Mr. Yung had already reached a city reimbursement limit, so he spent his own money to buy two more books, an ant farm and caterpillars.

“I don’t want to deprive my kids of this awesome experience of witnessing a caterpillar turn into a butterfly and watching ants burrow because it’s such an interest that they have right now,” he said. “So I went on Amazon.”

Education, News

General Assembly bill: North Carolina schools should post “In God We Trust” in prominent location

Rep. Bert Jones, R-Caswell, Rockingham, filed a bill requiring schools to post “In God We Trust.”

North Carolina lawmakers began their “short” session this week with a flurry of filing activity, mostly centered on school safety but also delving into principal pay and whether or not schools should be forced to post the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on campus.

The latter bill, filed Thursday by several House Republicans, is likely to raise some eyebrows.

House Bill 965—co-sponsored by Bert Jones, Linda Johnson, Dean Arp and Phil Shepard—would require that public schools, including both traditional schools and charters, display the state and national mottoes in “at least one prominent location of each school, such as an entry way, cafeteria or other common area.”

The national motto is “In God We Trust.” The state motto, “Esse quam videri,” means “To Be, Rather Than To Seem” in Latin.

State House lawmakers, meanwhile, released a handful of bills that follow this year’s recommendations of  a school safety legislative panel. The committee met after a February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., touched off a wave of student-based activism, including calls for gun reforms in North Carolina.

As expected, the GOP lawmakers that led the panel will focus on school resource officers, peer counseling programs and threat assessment, rather than guns.

Among other things, the bills—filed by Republicans like House Majority Leader John Bell, David Lewis and John Torbett—would budget $1.8 million in grant funds for school resource officers in elementary and middle schools.

They would set state standards for school resource officer training and reporting while ordering the state to ready assessments of “facility vulnerability.”

And the panel’s legislation would direct publicly-funded traditional schools and charters—as well as private schools receiving state-funded vouchers—to develop school risk management plans, hold school safety exercises and provide details about their plans to local law enforcement.

Such provisions won’t spur controversy in the legislature, and are likely to be passed speedily.

Senate lawmakers also moved to address some critics’ concerns with a GOP-led, principal pay overhaul last year. Influential Republicans Jerry Tillman, a former school administrator, and David Curtis filed Senate Bill 718 Wednesday, which would extend “hold harmless” provisions for veteran administrators worried about impending pay cuts, a major point of contention for some district leaders and members of the State Board of Education.

GOP lawmakers moved last year to shift away from principal pay that’s based on years of experience and advanced degrees, instead determining pay according to school enrollment. Principals would also be eligible for  thousands of dollars in bonuses if students score higher on exams or they boost performance in a struggling school.

Critics of the Republican plan—which lifted base pay for new principals but may have yielded pay cuts for some veteran administrators—worried the new model would speed early retirements.

NCASA Executive Director Katherine Joyce said her organization supports the tweaks in the principal pay bill.

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA), said the new bill addresses those concerns.

Joyce said the draft proposal would also create a new, three-year “hold harmless” easing transitions for high-performing principals into low-performing schools. Critics said the state reforms would discourage top principals from moving into schools that need the most improvement.

And this week’s bill combines the two principal bonus programs, ensuring administrators who made gains in their first year at a low-performing school aren’t left out.

“These are good changes overall that NCASA can support and are in line with changes we have requested lawmakers to consider,” Joyce said Thursday.

Legislators began restructuring principal pay in recent years after the state’s administrator pay was ranked near the bottom of the nation.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are expected to announce details of their budget plans in the coming weeks. Senate and House leaders say they’ve agreed to a spending target just short of $24 billion.

Legislators were welcomed back to session Wednesday by roughly 20,000 protesters demanding better teacher pay and better school funding.