Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, Legislature, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. The dirty half dozen: What you need to know about all six proposed constitutional amendments

The 2018 midterm elections are upon us and North Carolina voters will soon pass judgment on, among many other things, an unprecedented raft of six constitutional amendments.

The proposals include:

  • a proposal to permanently cap the state income tax rate,
  • a proposal to remake the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement so as to alter its composition and how its members are selected,
  • a proposal to dramatically alter and limit the Governor’s authority when it comes to filling vacancies that occur on the state courts,
  • a proposal to require some undetermined form of photo identification for in-person voting,
  • a proposal to establish a state constitutional “right” to hunt and fish, and
  • a proposal to enact a multi-faceted “victims’ rights” amendment known as “Marsy’s Law.”

There are many compelling reasons to oppose all six – starting with the absurd and outrageous lack of process that accompanied their approval by the General Assembly during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session, the hurried rewrite of two amendments in late August, and the deceitful and dishonest way the proposals will be summarized and presented on the ballot.

Still, even if one were to set aside all of the profound problems of process and procedure, there are numerous important substantive deficiencies in each amendment that are more than adequate to justify a “no” vote. Here is a brief list: [Read more...]

2. Old and in the way: Hurricane Florence could barrel over landfills, waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and more toxics

Thousands of animal waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and other repositories of toxic material lie in and near the projected path of Hurricane Florence, increasing the risk of breaches or leaks of dangerous chemicals into the environment. (This is one important reason you should avoid wading through or touching flood waters.)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has a new mapping and data feature, which shows the locations of these sites, both in map form and spreadsheet. All of the maps below are from the DEQ site and can be clicked on to enlarge them. We’ve linked to each map; once you get to that DEQ page, click on the “data” tab to view the addresses and facility names in spreadsheet form.

The first map shows all of the animal feeding operations for permitted swine, cattle and poultry farms that use wet litter. (Dry litter poultry farms are “deemed permitted” and are largely unregulated.) With more than a foot of rain forecast, there is a higher risk of lagoon breaches, which can send millions of gallons of animal waste to rivers, wetlands and nearby property. [Read more…]

Bonus read:

Read more

Education, NC Budget and Tax Center

Income tax rate cap amendment would cement N.C.’s missed opportunity in education

Imposing an arbitrary income tax rate cap in the North Carolina Constitution could fundamentally compromise our state’s ability to fund our schools, ensure the educational preparation of young children, and boost the educational attainment of our workforce.

Such a cementing of a missed opportunity in education could happen as the tax load shifts even further onto middle- and low-income taxpayers, while the state’s highest income taxpayers, the top 1 percent, continue to benefit from recent tax changes since 2013.

In the Budget & Tax Center’s report on the costs of a proposal to lower the maximum tax rate allowed on incomes, we find that by cutting off the potential for top brackets on high-income earners, North Carolina will not have $2.4 billion available to meet unmet needs.

These needs are real in classrooms across the state and for families with children in every community.

  • Per pupil spending remains below pre-Recession levels – 25 percent lower than South Carolina.
  • The teacher pay penalty in N.C. is second worst in the nation, behind only Arizona.
  • Students are learning in buildings with mold and leaking roofs.
  • Students are lacking access to the tools that support their learning — technology and textbooks — and their well-being — school nurses, counselors and food.

With $2.4 billion, North Carolina could address these needs and help every child reach their full potential.  Failing to do so puts at risk our constitutional commitment to public education.

Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center. 

Courts & the Law, Education, Environment

Lawsuit tries to muzzle opponents of Durham charter school in environmentally sensitive watershed

Discovery Charter School would be built on 58 acres over three parcels: 501, 505 and 717 Orange Factory Road. Many neighbors oppose the siting because of the school’s proximity to the Little River, a drinking water source for Durham.

Note: This is one of two legal cases involving the siting of Discovery Charter School. A summary of the second case will be posted tomorrow.

A major developer of charter schools, Steve Hubrich claims he’s only trying to protect his reputation. But the president of Hubrich Contracting has filed what appears to be a SLAPP suit against opponents of one of his projects, Discovery Charter School, in northern Durham County.

SLAPP suits, short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, are often used by companies and government agencies to silence their critics under the guise of defamation claims. The plaintiffs don’t want to win a judgment; their claims are often flimsy. Instead, plaintiffs want to intimidate their opponents and rack up their attorney’s fees, with the goal of making the critics and their criticisms go away.

Hubrich’s claims, according to court records, match the characteristics of these intimidatory tactics. The allegations could be refuted — and are, according to court records. Yet with a $25,000 judgment on the line — and a request for a jury trial, which would likely require the defense to hire an attorney — Hubrich could effectively muzzle his opponents.

Anti-SLAPP suit attorneys Peter Kurdock and Mark Goldowitz of the Public Participation Project wrote on their website that SLAPPs aren’t just random meritless lawsuits. They are lawsuits that directly attack First Amendment rights.”

Making matters worse, North Carolina does not have an anti-SLAPP law. About half of the states do.

With an estimated 500 students, Discovery Charter School is scheduled to open as a middle school next fall and would be built in an environmentally sensitive watershed near the Little River in northern Durham County. To build the school in this rural and agricultural area, Hubrich was required to get a minor Special Use Permit from the county’s Board of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial body.

For more than a year, several neighbors along rural Orange Factory Road have fought the project and spoken against it at public hearings. They say the school, whose property would consume nearly 58 acres, would fracture wildlife habitats, jeopardize the quality of the Little River — a drinking water source for Durham — plus add onerous traffic of an extra 500 trips a day to a two-lane, officially designated NC Scenic Byway.

“The purpose of the website was to rally public opposition to the application for a minor Special Use Permit and called for people to attend a county Board of Adjustment hearing,” Hubrich complained, according to court documents.

Yet Hubrich’s main allegation was that someone had posted a false statement on the website insinuating that he planned to move several graves on the property, including “a baby’s” from a “slave cemetery” into one common grave.

The website text in question (upper right) from a court filing in the defamation suit.

Hubrich said in court documents that his contracting agent had found several depressions on the property believed to be unmarked grave sites. The agent then contacted the state Department of Archeology as required, Hubrich said, and the site had not been disturbed. Hubrich did say that state law allows him to combine these graves into one common site.

Hubrich, who has been in business for 24 years, claimed the opponents’ statements “harmed his reputation” as he was building “relationships with educators.” That relationship, though, seems to be on firm ground: Hubrich’s firm has built at least 11 charter schools, including Voyager Academy in Durham, and a Duke University call center.

Project opponents allegedly knew their statement was false, Hubrich contended, and had “malicious intent to injure the plaintiff’s reputation and business and to shift public sentiment against the project.”

But a strict reading of the web page in question, included in the court file, shows Hubrich’s account is a stretch. It doesn’t state a grave was moved, but rather, that the stones were moved. Nor does it say Hubrich moved the stones. The only mention of Hubrich is that he “acknowledged [the graves] and that it would be within its right to place them within one grave with a marker.” Then the word: “Disgusting.”

Initially in June, Hubrich and his attorneys with the Morningstar Law Group filed the defamation suit against “John Doe.” Then in July, Hubrich named his alleged antagonist — Marie Mahoney, of 817 Orange Factory Road. He then petitioned the court to take a deposition from her husband, Patrick, whose photo appeared on the website (he was holding a baby deer who reportedly had tried to cross the road) to try to prove it.

Marie Mahoney could not be reached for comment. However, Patrick Mahoney sent a letter to the court asking not to be deposed because Hubrich’s allegations were false. Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson denied Mahoney’s request. As of Aug. 28, Hubrich’s attorneys can depose Patrick Mahoney “and other non parties … for the purpose of investigating the defendant’s identity.”

Meanwhile, Hubrich has started his own counter-website: orangefactoryroad.com.

Education, News

Test scores in North Carolina public schools decline

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

This time of year is always a nervous one for North Carolina public school leaders.

With state testing results going public, K-12 officials will talk about their successes and their struggles. This week may focus on the struggles, though, with new testing results showing declines on state exams.

From The News & Observer:

Fewer North Carolina public school students passed state exams this year, with the decline increasing over time for students in third grade despite a state push to get young children reading at grade level.

New state results from the 2017-18 school year released Wednesday also show that the state’s 12-year streak of rising high school graduation rates has ended. But state leaders say the graduation results can’t be compared to previous years because of changes in how the rates are now calculated.

State education leaders pointed to positives Wednesday about how the majority of schools are meeting growth expectations on state exams and that the number of low-performing schools has dropped.

But the new test results also showed several areas of decline.

“We have some things to celebrate,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said at a news conference Wednesday. “We also have things that will make us pause and have concerns.”

Go to https://bit.ly/2wGEwP6 for a Charlotte Observer/News & Observer searchable database of results for every North Carolina public school. Results are also available at http://www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/ on the state’s website.

One example of a decline is how the percentage of students passing the state reading, math and science exams dropped to 58.8 percent in the 2017-18 school year. It was 59.2 percent the previous school year.

Even when the drop is small, Johnson said it still reflects that a lot of students declined. He said state test results seem to be plateauing.

“When we dig into the data, we see that some results go up, some results go down,” Johnson said. “But consistently the trend is that we are not where we want to be for students.”

An area where the scores seem to be going in reverse is performance of third-grade students on the state’s end-of-grade reading exam. State legislators created the Read To Achieve program in 2012 with the goal of trying to get students proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

The passing rate on the third-grade reading exams is now at 55.9 percent. It was at 60.2 percent in the 2013-14 school year and 57.8 percent in the 2016-17 school year.

Johnson said he hopes that efforts he’s pushed for such as reallocating state Read To Achieve funding to buy supplies and iPads for K-3 literacy teachers and reducing the amount of required assessments will improve performance.

It’s worth debating whether devices alone will make a difference. Recent research suggests the jury’s still out. 

Johnson’s iPad purchase has also been mired in controversy. As Policy Watch reported last week, the purchase came months after the superintendent and influential state budget leaders had their expenses, including dinner and lodging, paid for by Apple reps at their Silicon Valley headquarters.

Read more

Commentary, Education

Higher Ed advocates: NC is falling short in its support for K-12 (graph)

The good people at the Higher Education Works Foundation have published the latest installment in their “Where We Stand” series, which looks at where North Carolina stands in “a variety of education metrics, from pre-Kindergarten through the university.” The post is entitled “K-12: Progress, but a long way to go” and we’re happy to cross-post it here.

North Carolina’s spending on K-12 public education took a hit during and after the Great Recession – and it still hasn’t fully recovered.

Compared with its neighbors, North Carolina’s spending per student ranked 8th of 11 Southeastern states in 2017-18.1  North Carolina both lags adjacent states – trailing South Carolina by $2,385 per pupil – and has yet to restore spending per student to pre-recession levels.

In constant dollars, North Carolina’s spending per student peaked at $9,952 in 2007-08, ranking 40th in the nation.  State support per student continued to slide to $8,784 in 2012-13, when North Carolina ranked 46th.

As North Carolina’s population continued to grow, state legislators made incremental increases until spending per student reached an estimated $9,528 in 2017-18, ranking 39th.2  But spending per student still remained $424 less than pre-recession levels in 2017-18, after adjusting for inflation.

Beyond the dollars, officials have focused in recent years on 3rd-grade reading proficiency.

Ninth-graders who read proficiently in 3rd grade are three times more likely to go to college, Venessa Harrison, President of AT&T North Carolina, noted at a recent NC Chamber Conference on Education.

Yet students who do not read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out, Harrison said, and 62% of North Carolina 4th-graders do not read proficiently.

We’ve made some progress, but we have a long way to go.

1 http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/180413-Rankings_And_Estimates_Report_2018.pdf, p. 83. Current expenditures: The expenditures for operating local public schools, excluding capital outlay and interest on school debt.  These expenditures include such items as salaries for school personnel, fixed charges, student transportation, school books and materials, and energy costs.

2 https://www.wral.com/nc-ranks-37th-in-nation-for-teacher-pay-39th-in-per-pupil-spending/17504331/.