Lottery funded grant awards to aid school construction projects in ‘economically distressed’ counties

More than two dozen school districts in “economically distressed” counties will share a $400 million state lottery windfall to replace and repair aging school buildings, the NC Department of Public Instruction announced Tuesday.

The grants are awarded under the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund. They will help to build 14 new or replacement school buildings, including four high schools, a Career and Technical Education Center and a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school.

The grants represent the largest annual allocation under the program, created by the General Assembly in 2017 from state lottery revenues. The grants are in addition to the state’s lottery-supported Public School Building Capital Fund, from which all districts receive an allocation each year.

Last year, the state’s public schools estimated that they need $12.8 billion over the next five years to improve or repair aging school facilities. That was nearly $5 billion more than districts said they needed in 2016.

In a news release, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said the needs-based grants are a key support for districts where local tax resources fall short of needs for modernizing or replacing aging school facilities.

“Just as all students in North Carolina need an excellent teacher in every classroom,” Truitt said. “students and teachers need high quality schools in good repair that help support learning. These needs-based grants are an important boost for many districts and communities – and most importantly, their students.”

Grant awards are capped at maximums of $30 million for a new elementary school, $40 million for a middle school and $50 million for a new high school.

The needs-based grant applications were reviewed by the state Department of Public Instruction based on priorities provided in the law, including ability to generate revenue, high debt-to-tax revenue ratio and the extent to which a project will address critical deficiencies in adequately serving the current and future student population.

Halifax County Schools, one of the districts in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit, will receive a $31.27 million award to build a new school.

“We are grateful for the approval of the grant to build a new school in the Eastman area to serve our students,” said Superintendent Eric Cunningham. “This was a dream of our past board member Mrs. Susie Lynch Evans; she worked on these plans for many years; even though she is no longer with us, we are looking forward to moving on with the building plans.”

Mrs. Evans died in January.

Over the last five years, the Needs Based Public School Capital Fund has awarded a total of $739 million dollars to local school districts, providing funding for 60 new K-12 construction projects, including 33 new schools, eight new buildings and the replacement of 44 existing schools.

Districts awarded grants for 2021-22 include:

  • Alexander County Schools: $1.35 million
  • Anson County Schools: $9 million
  • Ashe County Schools: $17 million
  • Bladen County Schools: $17 million
  • Camden County Schools: $27.7 million
  • Carteret County Public Schools: $1.93 million
  • Newton-Conover City Schools (Catawba County): $22 million
  • Edenton-Chowan Schools (Chowan County): $25 million
  • Clay County Schools: $32 million
  • Cleveland County Schools: $7.8 million
  • Gates County Schools: $1.78 million
  • Halifax County Schools: $31.27 million
  • Hoke County Schools: $30 million
  • Mooresville Graded School District (Iredell County): $616,000
  • Mitchell County Schools: $17 million
  • Montgomery County Schools: $2.65 million
  • Northampton County Schools: $40 million
  • Polk County Schools: $1.3 million
  • Public Schools of Robeson County: $25 million
  • Clinton City Schools (Sampson County): $899,000
  • Scotland County Schools: $1.1 million
  • Mount Airy City Schools (Surry County): $1.75 million
  • Tyrrell County Schools: $514,000
  • Warren County Schools: $24 million
  • Washington County Schools: $40 million
  • Wayne County Public Schools: $9 million
  • Yadkin County Schools: $1.44 million
  • Yancey County Schools: $6.69 million

 See more detail about each district’s grants here.

Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Ron DeSantis and Florida math

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Screenshot,: KXAN News.

I often blame my abysmal math skills on missing a crucial week of long division instruction way back in fourth grade. Laid low by a virus, I never caught up and remain lousy at math to this day.

But young students in Florida public schools will now have an even better excuse for not learning math: Their governor decided it was too gay and reverse-racist.

In his continuing quest to appear as dumb as a box of Indian River tangelos, Gov. Ron DeSantis has endorsed the removal of a whopping 54 math textbooks used in (mostly) elementary school classes because, he says, they contain math problems brimming with gender issues and Critical Race Theory.

No examples were cited but you can just take his word for it.

Remember when we used to laugh at “Florida man” stories? Oh, so quaint, those tales of various residents who … while NAKED, stole and crashed a police car…smeared poop on a neighbor’s “Be Kind” sign…claimed to own Google…charged cash money for being an alleged  “monkey whisperer” …turned an uncle’s skeleton into a “skelecaster” guitar…claimed during a DUI stop his passenger was an “emotional support python”…wore women’s underwear on his face as a mask when boarding a commercial flight…Ahhhh, those were such innocent, good times in comparison.

We now know the quintessential Florida Man is…the governor. I admit I was thrown off by his Ivy League education and even beat that dead horse a few weeks ago in this very space but readers took me to task: Education doesn’t guarantee wisdom, Florida readers repeatedly pointed out via email.

And then they all got high on bath salts and bit my face off.

Kidding!

I wasn’t all that surprised when faux conservatives like DeSantis wanted to ban library books. That’s entirely predictable because nothing says “I’m A Dumbbell” more convincingly than rounding up acclaimed literature and setting it on fire in the backyard burn barrel along with the Lil Debbie boxes, amiright?

But math textbooks? Whoa. That’s some twisted lowest common denominator stuff right there. Did not see that coming. It’s one thing to denigrate a book full of Pulitzer Prize winning WORDS by somebody like Toni Morrison but MATH textbooks? Seems a bit of a stretch. Because no credible examples were provided, I can only speculate how it’s possible to object to math problems.

But every time I try to imagine offensive math problems, I come up with something more on the order of …

“John and Mary each want to buy an ice cream cone at Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe but John says his daddy says the “e” on the end of Olde and Shoppe sounds kinda gay to him. How many seconds should tick by before Mary tells John he’s a homophobic idiot and leaves him sitting there while she gets her own ice cream?”

Maybe it was more like this…

“Britney’s parents are concerned their third grader may read a math problem that explores the fundamentals of Critical Race Theory, which examines the impact of racism in areas such as the legal system, housing opportunities and access to education. If Britney’s parents, who honestly haven’t read a book since middle school are suddenly experts on a complicated societal question, how many hours a day do you believe they spend watching Tucker Carlson each week? If you guessed “Well, erry dang time he’s on, of course!” all y’all get an A plus.

How about a twist on this old chestnut?

If 100 protesters block the entrance to Disney World because they believe Disney is a cult of pedophiles whose mouse mascot is sending subliminal messages to encourage children to turn gay, how many times will I bang my head on my desk in frustration because THIS REALLY HAPPENED before I pass out?

Nope. Higher.

Celia Rivenbark is a NYT-bestselling author and columnist. Her email is [email protected].

Top stories: A scathing report on the UNC System, two charters in hot water, water quality violations that result in one of the largest civil penalties ever, and organized retail crime on the rise


12. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

 

National faculty organization releases scathing report on UNC System

Thursday’s scathing report on the UNC System from the American Association of University Professors included input from universities across the system.

 

“The University of North Carolina system is in trouble,” according to a report released Thursday by a national faculty group. “And not the kind of trouble that record enrollments or good rankings can fix. It is the kind of trouble that festers and spreads.”

The 38 page report, released Thursday by the American Association of University Professors, chronicles what the group says is excessive political interference, threats to academic freedom and systemic racism throughout the 17-campus system. It is the product of a special committee’s interviews with more than 50 faculty members, current and former administrators and trustees and members of the system-wide Racial Equity Task Force. The report includes quotes from many of those interviewed, though they are not identified by name.

The report is the first step in a process that could lead the national organization to sanction the system for violation of the group’s governing standards. While the AAUP has no power over the system, a formal sanction from the group could carry weight with professors and further harm the university’s ability to attract and retain top talent. Only 13 institutions have been formally sanctioned by AAUP, according to the group’s own list – mostly smaller, private colleges and universities.

“This is a rare occurrence,” said Michael Behrent, professor of History at Appalachian State University and president of the North Carolina AAUP.

“There is already concern about an exodus of faculty of color and other faculty as well,” Behrent said at a press conference at UNC-Chapel Hill Thursday morning. “The fact that the national organization of professors tells other professors that this institution is sanctioned could pose serious recruitment challenges for this system, with all of the consequences that come with that for its reputation, the quality of its degrees and so on.”

The investigation, conducted by a committee of professors from universities outside the state, was sparked by last year’s controversy over UNC-Chapel Hill’s very public failure to hire acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. But Behrent said the seeds of that controversy were sown years earlier, when Republicans took over state government in 2010 and began a purge of Democrats from the UNC System’s Board of Governors. Critics within and outside the system say that contributed to more partisan and ideological governance and a series of scandals that gained national attention.

Beyond the Hannah-Jones controversy, the report looks at the ouster or politically motivated resignations of system presidents and chancellors, the controversial installation of new system and campus leaders under rules changed by political appointees and failed responses to everything from the toppling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also addresses a lack of diversity on governing boards, among the faculty at most UNC system schools and high profile incidents in which faculty members said they were singled out for retribution for expressing criticisms of the university or conservative leaders in the state.

The AAUP committee reached out to UNC System President Peter Hans, UNC Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair David Boliek as it did its prepared the report. The group said each of them declined to be interviewed.

The report contains “countless errors,” UNC System spokesman Josh Ellis told Policy Watch Thursday.

Megan Hayes, associate vice chancellor and chief communications officer at Appalachian State, provided Policy Watch with the school’s 8-page refutation of the sections of the report that deal with App State.

The system shared two response letters Kimberly van Noort, the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, sent to an AAUP representative before the report was released.

“You offer a relentlessly grim portrayal of one of the nation’s strongest, most vibrant, and most productive university systems,” van Noort wrote on March 23, after having reviewed a copy of the report. “It’s nearly impossible to square the bleak portrait you’ve created with the thriving campuses we know and love.”

“During the last six years, we have lowered tuition for nearly all of our students; improved graduation rates among low-income and minority students; and made historic investments in growing and supporting our system’s six historically minority-serving institutions,” van Noort wrote. “We continue to recruit and support world-class faculty, and we secured substantial raises for faculty and staff in the most recent (bipartisan) state budget, as well as more than $2 billion in capital funding for our campuses.”

These are not small accomplishments, van Noort wrote. While the system appreciates dissenting voices and criticism, she wrote, “our harshest critics should not be mistaken for anything like a consensus among the 260,000 faculty, staff, and students across the UNC System.”

In an earlier e-mail exchange, dated October 18, van Noort addressed the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy specifically. Writing on behalf of Ramsey, van Noort pointed out that the question of Hannah-Jones’s hiring and tenure was handled at the campus and not the UNC System level, but she noted that ultimately the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees did offer a tenured position to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.  The revelation of details as to how and why the offer was held up, political and donor pressure exerted on administrators and the university’s board of trustees ultimately led Hannah-Jones to turn down the position at Chapel Hill for one at Howard University.

“It is hard to read this as anything other than a situation in which a sought-after scholar weighed multiple tenure offers and selected the one she most wanted to pursue,” van Noort wrote.

At Thursday’s press conference AAUP members said that sort of pushback – and regular assertions that criticism from students, staff and faculty don’t represent the consensus opinion on the system’s campuses – is disappointing.

“I came to the UNC System in 2010 because I believed it was one of the best university systems in the United States, if not the world, for teaching and research,” said Nicole Peterson, an Anthropology professor and president of the AAUP chapter at UNC-Charlotte.

But during her time in the UNC system, Peterson said, she and her colleagues have felt the system isn’t living up to its potential.

“This new report backs that feeling with evidence,” Peterson said. “It shows that our reputation and our state’ reputation is suffering. The problems that this report highlights is keeping the UNC system from being one of the best university systems in the world.”

Peterson said the system can be a leader in education, but the number of problems and details in the report are “shocking” and must be addressed rather than waved away or met with justifications.

Behrent said he hopes the university will instead take in the details of the report and begin working with its students, faculty and staff to address them meaningfully in the sort of shared governance promoted by the AAUP and long seen in the system.

The AAUP could take up the question of sanctions by early summer, he said.

“It is my sincere hope that sometime between now and then – after having been ignored for a long time – members of the board of governors, members of the boards of trustees, campus administrators, system administrators, will actually listen to these concerns and agree that it is not a good thing for the system to be sanctioned,- and will talk to us an other campus constituents about trying to solve these problems,” Behrent said.

Read the full AAUP report here.

 

State Board of Education panel rejects Torchlight Academy’s attempt to keep school from closing

The State Board of Education has ordered Torchlight Academy in Raleigh to close due to mismanagement.

A State Board of Education panel agreed Wednesday to recommend that Torchlight Academy in Raleigh close for good on June 30.

Members of the state board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee (EICS) decision followed an impassioned push by Torchlight leaders to keep the K-8 school of roughly 550 students from closing.

The state board voted in March to revoke the school’s charter after numerous financial and governance shortcomings surfaced during an N. C. Department of Public Instruction investigation. Most issues stemmed from the school’s relationship with Raleigh businessman Don McQueen and his education management organization (EMO), Torchlight Academy Schools LLC. The school’s board of directors has also been criticized for poor oversight.

Torchlight’s board appealed the decision to close the school but withdrew it in favor of an informal hearing with the EICS committee.

“This mess didn’t happen in a day,” said Stephon Bowens, the attorney for the school’s board. “All we’re asking is to give us an opportunity to clean it up. We can do it.”

Amy White

After discussing the request in a closed session, EICS chairwoman Amy White explained that the panel still has too many concerns to reverse the state board’s earlier decision.

White shared those concerns, which include:

  • 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.

The state board will consider the recommendation when it meets next week.

Last month, Torchlight’s board hired veteran educator Randy Bridges to run the school after parting ways with McQueen, who also served as the school’s executive director.

Randy Bridges

White thanked Bridges for his commitment to manage the school through the end of the school year.

“Because of Dr. [Randy] Bridges’ leadership, we feel comfortable working together to minimize the disruption of the students currently attending Northeast Raleigh Academy (Torchlight) during the rest of the academic year,” White said.

Before the EICS’s ruling, Bridges told the committee 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 is expected to reach 500 next school year.

“We feel confident that if the decision is made for our school to remain open, the students and the parents will return,” Bridges said.

Acknowledging that the board of directors needs new blood, Bowens said a plan is in place to select new board members capable of providing better school oversight. Within one year, all eight board members would be replaced, he said.

Bowens also revealed growing tension between the Torchlight board and McQueen, who along with Cynthia McQueen, his wife, business partner and former Torchlight principal, have been the public faces of the school for nearly two decades.

He told the EICS panel that the McQueens have repeatedly ignored the board’s requests for school records.

“I can tell you, and it may not be a surprise, that in the very near future, if the information is not provided, we will be in court seeking the information and seeking a court to require that that information is provided,” Bowens said.

Don McQueen

A legal fight with the McQueens is complicated by the fact that they own the building that houses the elementary school. If the state board allowed the school to stay in business, McQueen could force the school out and leave Torchlight leaders with only four months to find a new home.

“Finding a location to locate an elementary school in a four-month period is going to be incredibly daunting,” White said.

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 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.

Bowens said the board is working hard to “recapture” public money the McQueens’ misspent.

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