Education, News

Report: Matthews leaders say municipal charter bill gives them leverage

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, filed a controversial bill last year to clear municipal charters.

Leaders in the Charlotte suburb of Matthews say a pending municipal charter bill in the N.C. General Assembly gives them leverage in their ongoing bickering with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), according to a Charlotte Observer report Wednesday.

Policy Watch reported last month on the brewing battle over schools near North Carolina’s largest city, with leaders in Matthews at times pushing for assurances that the district won’t force busing to ameliorate segregation concerns.

Meanwhile, calls for Matthews to splinter off from CMS to form their own district have been met with stiff warnings that they would be creating a racially isolated school district. The suburban town is predominantly white.

Charlotte leaders seem highly unlikely to approve any large-scale busing in the coming years, but there remains obvious tension between Matthews officials and CMS officials, even after a state study committee approved a report this month with no clear directive for dividing school districts.

Much of that tension centers today around House Bill 514, a measure that would allow Matthews and nearby Mint Hill to form their own publicly-funded charters apart from CMS.

It’s a proposal with potentially enormous, precedent-setting implications for North Carolina school districts.

From The Charlotte Observer:

The prospect of towns launching their own charter schools has altered the balance of power in Mecklenburg County’s public education scene, as a Tuesday night meeting between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the town of Matthews illustrates.

The joint meeting — the second such session inspired by a controversial municipal charter school bill — ended with an unusual two-day deadline.

The school board wants town officials to decide by Thursday evening whether they’ll pull the plug on House Bill 514, which would authorize Matthews to create its own independent public schools. In return, CMS would enter a three-month joint study with town leaders about ways to address their concerns, which include school crowding and the fear of massive busing.

Most members of the Matthews Board of Commissioners said they want to work with CMS. But some say that without what one commissioner called “a safety valve,” the south suburban town has little leverage with the countywide district.

“If not House Bill 514, what would have brought us to this table?” asked Matthews Commissioner Christopher Melton.

School board members say the bill, introduced by state Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, could upend public education across North Carolina, similar to the way the lifting of the state’s charter school cap

CMS leaders say Brawley’s local bill, which has passed the House and could go to the Senate when the General Assembly convenes in May, creates the opportunity for suburbs to carve off their own public schools, weakening the countywide systems that serve larger numbers of black, Hispanic and low-income students. The bill affects only Matthews and nearby Mint Hill, but they say it would set a precedent.

But some town commissioners said asking Brawley to kill the charter bill would not only reduce the town’s leverage with CMS but with county commissioners. “I think that the House bill is our strongest negotiating tool,” said Jeff Miller.

During a break in the joint meeting, the six CMS board members who attended huddled with Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and other district staff. They came back and proposed a joint task force with a three-month deadline for bringing back solutions to the town’s concerns — contingent on the town withdrawing support for HB 514.

“I think it is the slippery slope that begins to separate our school system into a have and have-not system,” Ellis-Stewart said.

Education, News

N.C. legislator says children’s blood “will be on our hands” if state doesn’t allow for armed teachers

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus

A North Carolina lawmaker with a lengthy history of gun rights advocacy says the blood of murdered schoolchildren “will be on our hands” if the state doesn’t allow for armed teachers.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican who sits on the state House education committee, urged his fellow legislators to clear the way for armed school teachers and personnel in a late night email Monday, calling it “the most practical, common sense, and constitutionally sound proposal of all.”

Policy Watch obtained a copy of the email Tuesday morning, which was issued with the subject line “saving innocent lives.” It was sent to all House and Senate members but directed specifically at members of a House select committee on school safety, which was slated to meet Tuesday morning.

From Pittman’s email:

“We need to allow teachers, other school personnel and other citizens, who are willing, to be screened and  to receive tactical training and bring their weapons to school, in cooperation with local law enforcement who would need to be informed as to who is doing this.  We should give them a fighting chance.  Otherwise, when they die, and children die whom they could have defended, their blood will be on our hands.  I cannot accept that.  I hope you will think this through and find that you cannot accept it, either.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Pittman has urged lawmakers to arm teachers, a controversial proposal floated by President Donald Trump and other gun rights activists after a Florida school shooting left 17 dead in February.

Pittman also has a history of inflammatory comments. In February, the Cabarrus County lawmaker apologized after he suggested in a Facebook comment that the Florida shooter was part of a conspiracy to spur more gun control laws. He’s also come under fire for comparing former President Abraham Lincoln to German leader Adolf Hitler.

In his Monday night email, Pittman said so-called “gun free zones” like schools encourage school shooters. He said recent polls indicate between 20 to 30 percent of teachers are willing to “take on this responsibility” of being trained and armed.

He also indicated that he’d spoken with a substitute teacher in Henderson County about a “sizable group of teachers in that county who, along with her, are eager to take on the challenge and responsibility of defending innocent lives in our schools.”

Many school advocates have spoken openly in opposition to any proposal to arm teachers, including the N.C. Association of Educators, which represents K-12 teachers before the General Assembly in Raleigh.

The entirety of Pittman’s email is below:

Read more

Education

Could smaller schools mean safer schools? One of the nation’s best teachers believes so

As the North Carolina General Assembly House Select Committee on School Safety meets again on Tuesday, one of the the America’s best public school teachers has several suggestions for improving safety.

Gaston County high school English teacher Bobbie Cavnar believes that smaller schools paired with more nurses and psychologists will enhance the safety of our classrooms.

Cavnar, named by the NEA Foundation as the nation’s top educator, recently discussed school shootings and making students feel safer with NC Policy Watch director Rob Schofield:

At today’s legislative hearing, members of the Student Physical Safety Working Group will hear from the:

  • Executive Director of the North Carolina Christian Schools Association
  • Former Chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Safer Schools Community
  • Development and Training Manager of the Center for Safer Schools
  • Sheriffs of Rockingham County and Carteret County

View the complete agenda here.

And be sure to listen to the full 20-minutes interview with Cavnar below in which he discusses his love of teaching and how he inspires students.

Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court weighs who’s to blame for “entrenched inequities” in Halifax County schools

Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan

Before the N.C. Supreme Court Monday, attorneys for both Halifax County and local parents seemed to agree on the lackluster state of school funding in the rural North Carolina county. In question, however, is who’s to blame for the so-called “entrenched inequities.”

The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in the crucial case of Silver et al vs. The Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which spun out of longstanding complaints of funding disparities and crumbling facilities in the eastern North Carolina county.

Those complaints were first heard in the state’s long-running Leandro case, which found the state had a responsibility to provide a “sound, basic education” to all children, regardless of locale.

Yet plaintiffs in the Silver case say the continued operation of three Halifax school districts—two with majority Black enrollment and one with majority white enrollment—exacerbates funding inequalities in the relatively low-income county.  Some—including State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey—have argued the small county would be best served by a single school system, although local officials have been ardently opposed to any mergers.

Parents in the North Carolina county say they want the courts to force a merger of the districts, although lower courts thus far have ruled against them, finding instead that, with the State Board of Education having final say over local district mergers, it’s the state that’s responsible.

But attorneys for the Halifax parents point out the predominantly white district has received millions more in local funding from tax revenues, leading to newer buildings, more supplies, and, ultimately, better academic performance.

Mark Dorosin

“This case concerns what the county commission has failed to do,” said Mark Dorosin, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and an attorney with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.

However, Justice Paul Newby pressed Dorosin to explain the difference between the Silver case and the two Leandro rulings, in which the court ultimately pointed the finger at the state and the General Assembly for funding disparities.

Dorosin argued that, while prior courts found the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure an education for all, local county commissioners too have a responsibility to fund schools fairly.

The state historically funds day-to-day operations in K-12 schools, but local county commissions are charged with funding the construction and maintenance of school facilities.

He said the funding disparities between the segregated school systems yielded failing facilities in the majority Black districts, a factor that attorneys say contributed to the achievement gaps.

“Our education system recognizes that there are shared responsibilities,” Dorosin added.

Attorneys for the county made their arguments that the court rulings in the Leandro case point to the state’s culpability, not the county commissioners.

“If the state of North Carolina was doing what it was supposed to do, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Garris Neil Yarborough, a Fayetteville attorney hired by the county.

The day’s arguments included vigorous questioning from Justice Michael Morgan, who asked what, if anything, county commissioners are responsible for when it comes to local schools.

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Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court to hear arguments in pivotal Halifax County school case Monday

Mark Dorosin, attorney for the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights

A potentially precedent-setting legal case challenging Halifax County commissioners over decrepit school facilities will go before the state Supreme Court Monday.

Oral arguments will be heard in Silver, et al v. the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which began in 2015 when parents and community members in the eastern North Carolina county claimed the maintenance of three racially-distinct school systems in the relatively small county created a system of haves and have-nots.

It’s a pivotal court case because it may determine who holds the blame for inequality in the local districts—local boards or the state. Historically, the state funds K-12 operations while local governments are responsible for infrastructure.

Thus far, courts have held that it’s the state that’s responsible for the conditions in some Halifax County schools.

Halifax schools are also at the center of the long-running Leandro court case, which found that the state needed to do more to equalize school funding between wealthy and poor counties.

Mark Dorosin with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights is lead counsel in the Silver case.

A Policy Watch report last year detailed the claims made against county commissioners.

From last year’s report:

Crumbling ceilings. Failing air conditioning and heating systems. Broken down school buses. Mold infestations. Rodents scurrying through the hallways. Students forced to traipse over sewage from flooded toilets. Dismal academic performance year in and year out.

These are just some of the complaints parents are leveling in court against local government leaders in rural Halifax County, home to one of North Carolina’s most chronically under-performing public school districts and a key player in the state’s 23-year-old Leandro case over equity in school funding.

Yet a panel of North Carolina appeals court judges ruled this week that it’s the state government, and not the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, that’s responsible for the “serious problems” in the eastern North Carolina county.

“It’s disappointing,” says Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which represented five Halifax students and their parents or legal guardians in this pivotal case.

It’s a damaging, but perhaps not decisive, setback for Dorosin’s clients, who hoped the courts would force county commissioners in Halifax to reconstruct three small, racially segregated school districts in the county that they blame for fundamental inequities in Halifax school funding.

Reached Tuesday, Brenda Sledge, one of those Halifax parents, said she was “shocked” by the decision.

Their case, Dorosin explains, targets, among other things, the county’s system of collecting and distributing local sales and use taxes, which they say has long favored one district more than others, a district composed of mostly white students.

Additionally, the poor state of some local school facilities—which, in North Carolina, are traditionally funded by local governments and not the state—contributes to a system that deprives some of a “sound basic education,” the legal benchmark set decades ago by the N.C. Supreme Court’s landmark Leandro decision.