Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget would fully fund year three of the Leandro remedial plan

Gov. Roy Cooper

The third year of the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan would be fully funded under a budget proposal released by Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday.

Cooper’s plan calls for spending $525.8 million on the school improvement plan that stems from the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit. He also proposes to spend $687 million more for K-12 and University of North Carolina system construction projects, repairs and renovations.

The remedial plan is based on a detailed school improvement plan developed by WestEd, a consulting firm hired by Cooper to examine public education in North Carolina. WestEd concluded that it would cost $5.6 billion over eight years to fully implement its recommendations.

“My budget fully funds the plan to ensure that every child receives a sound basic education and we know that it’s been a difficult couple of years for students, parents and staff,” Cooper said. “Children and educators are working hard to catch up on studies and they need more support.”

The Leandro conflict commenced 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 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.

The State Supreme Court is preparing to take up the case again after former Leandro judge David Lee ordered lawmakers to transfer $1.7 billion from its coffers to pay for the first two years of the remedial plan. Republican lawmakers contend the lower court doesn’t have the authority to order such a transfer. They also disagree with Democratic colleagues about how much of the $1.7 billion Lee ordered transferred is included in the current budget.

Teachers would also see bigger raises and master’s pay would be restored under Cooper’s proposal, which is essentially a revision of the second year of the state’s biennium budget lawmakers approved last year.

North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature ended salary increases for educators with advanced degrees in 2013, contending there is no evidence that teachers with master’s degrees help improve student test scores. Critics of the move say it has made it tougher for the state to recruit and retain quality educators.

Here are the expected impacts of Cooper’s proposed investment in education:

  • Ensure all teachers receive at least a 7.5% raise over the biennium.
  • Support up to 535 additional Teaching Fellows with forgivable loans.
  • Provide up to 97,500 students with no co-pay, free school meals.
  • Increase NC Pre-K reimbursement rates by 19%, and administrative reimbursement rates from 6% to 10%.
  • Expand Smart Start services statewide and strengthen the Early Intervention program with increased staffing and professional development.
  • Expand the Child Care WAGE$ program statewide to improve pay for early childhood educators.

Here’s the governor’s full budget proposal.

Tamika Walker Kelly

N.C. Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly applauded Cooper’s revised spending plan.

“Among the highlights of Gov. Cooper’s budget proposal are much-needed salary increases and adjustments for educators, as well as a commitment to fund Leandro in its third year while providing $180 million in support to at-risk and low-income students,” Kelly said. “Given the latest state revenue projections, we feel confident that these are achievable goals.”

The state expects a $4 billion surplus this fiscal year and nearly $2 billion next year, according to a revenue forecast released this week by the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division and Office of State Budget and Management.

The state’s Republican leadership has not responded to Cooper’s proposal. The Raleigh News & Observer reported Senate Leader Phil Berger will address the proposal next week in the short session, which begins Wednesday.

Advice for the Class of 2022: Gratitude, integrity are key to life’s success (with video)

If you missed it over Mother’s Day, thousands of North Carolina college students donned their caps and gowns and celebrated graduation over the the weekend.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, New York Times columnist and journalism professor Frank Bruni reflected on his loss of vision and the loss that students experienced as they made their way through the pandemic.

“Many of you felt cheated, and with good reason. But you know what? In crucial ways you got a better education because of it,” Bruni told the graduating class on Sunday.

“You learned fate really does turn on a dime, you learned trouble comes how and when you least expect it, and the you can survive that trouble. You learned that there is no one way of doing things. There are almost always ingenious alternatives.

“You can choose to take comfort and confidence from that. You can regard what you have been through as empowering. That’s the trick of happiness.”

Down the road at Duke University, General Motors CEO Mary Barra delivered Sunday’s commencement address at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Barra, the first woman to lead a major auto company, has been ranked by Forbes and Fortune on their lists of the “Most Powerful Women in Business.”

Barra told the graduates five life lessons from her parent’s kitchen table made an indelible mark on who she is to this day. Those lessons: #1 Do your best, #2 find your purpose, #3 listen to understand, #4 be honest always, and #5 include one more.

“There’s always room for one more. Everyone was included,” Barra reminisced.

“You know there’s a lot that’s not right in the world. Plenty to be worried about. But there are also so many reasons for hope, and I think the collective conversation and the progress we’re making on the power of inclusion is a huge cause for hope,” Barra said. “You are challenging assumptions and pushing all of us to be better. I hope you never stop.”

Click below to hear Barra speak on the importance of integrity:

Got a favorite commencement address  from this year or past years? Let us know.

State Board of Education terminates Torchlight Academy’s charter. School will close for good June 30.

As was expected, the State Board of Education on Thursday unanimously agreed to terminate Torchlight Academy’s charter due to ongoing concerns about the school’s finances and governance.

The board’s decision means more than 500 K-8 students from Wake and surrounding counties will be forced to find new schools in the fall. The school will close on June 30.

State Board member Amy White, chair of the board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee (EICS), said the committee considered recommending the immediate closure of the school, which had been managed by Raleigh businessman Don McQueen through his Education Management Organization (EMO), Torchlight Academy Schools LLC.

State Board of Education member Amy White

White said the EICS panel recommended allowing the school to remain open until the end of next month because it has confidence that interim school leader Randy Bridges would work with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) to minimize disruptions and ensure “consistency” in the delivery of state testing as the school year comes to a close.

“We felt like Dr. Randy Bridges would be able to provide that security and we voted to allow them to continue to the end of the [fiscal] year,” White said.

Last month, the state board did order the immediate closure of Three Rivers Academy, a small charter school of about 90 students in Bertie County that was also managed by McQueen’s EMO. An NCDPI investigation turned up many of the same financial and governance issues at Three Rivers found at Torchlight Academy.

The state board voted in March to revoke Torchlight’s charter. The school’s board withdrew its appeal of that decision in favor of last week’s informal hearing before the EICS panel to make a case for being allowed to keep the school open.

Bridges told the panel that only 10 of the 153 families that responded to a survey question about whether they planned to return to the school next fall, said they would not. He said many families had already started the application process, and enrollment was expected to reach 500 next school year.

The board also shared plans to replace the entire Torchlight board within a year. The board has been criticized for failing to adequately oversee school finances and operations.

White shared these concerns about Torchlight:

  • Ongoing concerns regarding the current and future financial health of the school.
  • Continued concerns about the board of directors’ ability to provide oversight and leadership necessary to correct the contractual, education and fiscal mismanagement.
  • Significant concerns regarding the school’s ability to meet and serve the needs of exceptional children for both compensatory education and daily instructional delivery.

Don McQueen

As Policy Watch previously reported, the Torchlight board ended its relationship with the McQueens after NCDPI officials uncovered numerous fiscal and governance issues at the school, including serious misconduct in its special education program, which was led by the McQueens’ daughter, Shawntrice Andrews.

State records show Andrews altered students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents in a student data management system monitored by the state, which is a violation of federal law. An IEP ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

Sherry Thomas, director of the Exception Children Division at NCDPI, told the EICS panel last week that she remains concerned about the school’s ability to provide students with needed services, despite efforts to correct problems in the program.

“I still don’t have confidence that there is a strong understanding and a strong director in the school of special education that will help correct the practices, and that’s the problem,” Thomas said. “It’s not fixing a piece of paper.”

The school’s board also fired Andrews’ husband, Aaron Andrews, who was listed on the school’s staff roster as a teacher’s assistant. It also ended a lucrative janitorial contract the McQueens dealt their son-in-law to clean a portion of the school used for a federally funded after-school program.

NCDPI records show that the McQueens paid their son-in-law $20,000 a month to clean a portion of the school being used by the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Center program, Policy Watch previously reported. Such centers provide children in high-poverty, low-performing schools academic help during non-school hours. Aaron Andrews’ custodial firm, Luv Lee Sanitation, was responsible for cleaning the six classrooms and common areas used exclusively by the program. The contract was signed by Cynthia McQueen.

Torchlight’s audits show that the McQueens received $1.8 million in management fees in 2016 and 2017, which were by far the two most profitable years. The fee dropped dramatically in subsequent years to $340,000 in 2018, $357,000 in 2019, $347,125 in 2020, and $365,922 in 2021.

A recent audit shows that the McQueens, who were both employed by the school and owned the firm that managed it, gave themselves hefty raises. Each was paid $160,000 during the 2020-21 school year, a $60,000 increase over the $100,000 each reportedly received the year before.

The Torchlight board’s attorney, Stephon Bowens, told the EICS panel that the board is working hard to “recapture” public money the McQueens’ misspent.

“There is a real possibility there might be litigation,” Bowens said.

War in Ukraine has made school buses expensive to operate

School busesRussia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has sent fuel prices through the roof. As a result, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) is prepared to ask state lawmakers for an additional $32 million in the upcoming short session to ensure school districts have enough diesel to power buses next school year.

The state’s two-year budget assumes diesel costs at $2.30 per gallon.

“That’s not the reality right now,” Jamey Falkenbury, NCDPI director of legislative and community affairs, told the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

The estimated cost per gallon was about $3.50 per gallon last week and $­4.35 this week, according to data provided by NCDPI. Every 10 cents increase per gallon costs the state an additional $2 million, Falkenbury said.

“This $32 million reflects the increase in gas prices that we currently have right now and we will continue conversations with the General Assembly and the OSBM (Office of State Budget and Management) to see where we’re at during the summer once the budget is proposed and finalized,” Falkenbury said.

The $32 million to cover higher fuel costs is more than half of the $59.1 million in legislative priorities NCDPI plans to ask lawmakers to fund.

Here’s the department’s complete list of short session priorities:

Meredith Poll: Majority in NC support legal access to abortion, more divided on other “culture war” issues

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to overturn Roe v. Wade, a new Meredith College poll shows more than half of North Carolina registered voters surveyed support keeping Roe’s provisions in the state or expanding access to legal abortion.

Just over half of those surveyed (52.6 percent) said they want to see a state law preserving the level of access to abortion under Roe or expanding it further. Just under 40 percent said they want a law that severely restricts access or makes it illegal in all circumstances.

Just 10 percent of respondents said they would like to see abortion made illegal in all cases and  9 percent said they would like to see it severely restricted, making it illegal after 15 weeks. A larger number – 20 percent – said they would like to see it made illegal unless a pregnancy endangers a woman’s life or the pregnancy is the result or rape or incest.

“The expected decision by the conservative Court to overturn Roe will eventually lead to a very divisive fight over abortion law in North Carolina,” said David McLellan, director of the Meredith Poll, in a statement on the results. “Currently, the Republicans cannot overturn a veto from [ Democratic] Governor Cooper, but if they pick up a few more seats and get a veto-proof majority, we may see North Carolina go the way of Texas or other states and immediately try to restrict abortion rights, even if most of the state’s citizens favor protecting abortion rights.”

Respondents were sharply divided by partisanship on the issue of abortion than nearly any other issue in the poll. More than three quarters of respondents who identified themselves as Democrats said they would like to keep the current level of access to abortion or see it expended. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans said they would like to see more restrictions or for it to be made illegal.

The poll also showed a sharp divide by age of respondents. More than two-thirds of respondents 18-24 years old said they want to keep the level of access under Roe or see it expanded. Older voters were much more evenly divided on the issue.

The poll found respondents much more divided on other “culture war” issues that may play a part in the coming midterm elections and beyond – including laws restricting mentioning of LGBTQ people in schools

The poll asked registered voters in the state about the Florida law restricting public school teachers and employees from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity, particularly in lower grades. The legislation, called “Don’t Say Gay” by critics. allows parents to sue the school system if they believe teachers and staff members violate the law.

Nearly half (47.1 percent) of respondents in the Meredith poll said they believe public elementary school parents should be able to sue schools if teachers or staff discuss sexual orientation or gender identity. Those surveyed were evenly split on the question of enacting this type of law for all public school grade levels, with 41.5 percent in support and 41.7 percent against.

A strong majority of Republicans (nearly 60 percent) said they supported such a law in North Carolina elementary schools. The poll found strong support among respondents identifying as Hispanic/Latinx and older respondents.

“Public education will continue to be a political battlefield in 2022 and beyond,” McLellan said in his statement. “Cultural issues such as discussing sexual identity, banning transgender athletes from participating in school sports, and banning books with certain content are all part of the culture wars being fought in electoral politics. As we saw in the Virginia governor’s race last year, Republicans can be very successful in appealing to parental rights on a host of educational topics.”

The poll also asked respondents about evolving marijuana laws, noting that 18 states and Washington D.C. now allow legal medical and recreational use by adults and another 17 allow adult medical use.  In North Carolina, only cannabidiol (CBD) use is legal, except on some tribal land. A bill expanding medical use in the state could see movement this month and has the support of influential Republican state lawmakers.

More than 60 percent of respondents said they would support expanding legal access either for medical or recreational use.

Nearly 38 percent of respondents in the Meredith poll said they are for expanding medical and recreational use while nearly 23 percent said they would support legalizing medial use only. Another 18 percent said they are for keeping the law as it is, allowing CBD use only and 13 percent said all forms of marijuana and CBD should be illegal in the state.