UNC-Chapel Hill a finalist for national “most secretive public agency” award

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a finalist for a dubious national honor — an award recognizing the most secretive public agency or official in the country

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Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) announced the five finalists for its annual Golden Padlock Award this week. UNC-Chapel Hill made the list for
“a pattern of secrecy that includes paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight cases involving open meetings law violations and the disclosure of documents detailing campus sexual assault cases.”

IRE also cited the school’s investigation of its own faculty over a leaked donor agreement, a story first reported by Policy Watch last August.

From IRE’s announcement:

“This year, the university targeted a coalition of its own journalism faculty after members filed formal requests seeking the university’s donor agreement with Walter Hussman, an Arkansas media magnate who gave $25 million to the journalism school and who also lobbied against the university’s hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The university rejected efforts to release the donor agreement for months, and after it was leaked to a reporter, officials launched an investigation into the source of the leak. As the school was renamed in Hussman’s honor and faculty members pushed for details, records released earlier this year showed the university attempted to access data on the hard drives of faculty without their knowledge. The names of those journalism faculty members, and the rationale for accessing their computers, was redacted.”

Other finalists for the award include the Arizona Senate, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Utah’s Department of Corrections and the City of Huntsville, Alabama and its police department.

The winner will be announced at the  IRE22 conference on Saturday, June 25, in Denver, Colorado.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s inclusion on IRE’s roll of dishonor is the latest in a series of public black eyes for the university.

In late April, the American Association of University Professors released a scathing report on the UNC System that could lead to sanction by the national group. The report’s sections on UNC-Chapel Hill focused on some of the same controversies cited by IRE.

Earlier this month, a national accrediting group officially downgraded the accreditation of the university’s journalism school, citing diversity and governance issues.

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Compute North’s cryptofarm on hold in Greenville, citing uncertainty of energy costs

Cryptofarms “mine” cryptocurrency using hundreds of high-powered computers. These operations consume enormous amounts of energy, both because of the need for computing power and fans to cool the machines. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

A large cryptofarm planned for Greenville, in Pitt County, is on hold after Compute North decided to “pause” the project last month.

Compute North spokesperson Kristyan Mjolsnes told Policy Watch via email that “based on legislative and regulatory actions that may impact the cost of energy in North Carolina, Compute North made the decision in early April to pause development plans in Greenville.”

The Greenville Utilities Commission announced Compute North’s decision yesterday.

Mjolsnes was referring to a dispute between Duke Energy and the NC Eastern Municipal Power Agency, which represents dozens of electric cooperatives in the state, including Greenville. These cooperatives buy power from Duke Energy.

Last year Duke had argued before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that battery storage did not count toward “demand-side management” or “demand-side response.” Demand-side means that the users are encouraged to adjust their energy usage, particularly during peak periods, to decrease power plants’ output. This helps reduce costs and alleviate the need for more power plants.

Battery storage would allow the electric co-ops to charge those devices during low-demand periods and then draw from them during the high- demand times, according to FERC documents. The co-ops argued this practice would qualify as “demand-side” management.

But using battery storage could have also zeroed-out the co-ops’ “capacity charge” — rates levied during high demand — and cut into Duke Energy revenues.

The utility then turned to FERC to rule on whether battery storage qualified as demand-side management; FERC ruled in favor of NC Eastern Municipal Power. The case went to the US Court of Appeals in the Fourth District, which found Duke’s arguments without merit.

Now Duke and NC Eastern Municipal Power are negotiating over how to calculate demand charges.

However, these charges are calculated would affect Compute North’s cryptofarm. As Policy Watch reported in January, cryptofarms consume enormous amounts of energy, in some cases as much as that of small countries. These cryptofarms, often misleadingly described as “data-processing centers,” tend to locate where energy sources are cheap and oversight is lax. If the outcome of the Duke and NC Eastern Municipal Power negotiations results in higher energy costs, Greenville would no longer be an attractive location.

This is the second setback for the project. Compute North, based in Minnesota, withdrew a special use permit request last November shortly before a scheduled vote by Pitt County Commissioners — a vote that was unlikely to go the company’s way.

The company then planned to move their cryptofarm within Greenville’s jurisdictional area. Earlier this year the Greenville City Council approved a rezoning request that would have allowed Compute North, or any crypto processing center, to locate in certain industrial areas. The zoning change was requested by the Greenville Eastern North Carolina Alliance, an economic development group.

Cryptomining uses a network of high-powered computers to verify cryptocurrency — an alternative form of money, including Bitcoin or Ethereum. The allure of cryptocurrency is that it sidesteps banks and financial institutions. Compute North’s proposed modular center — meaning it is housed in shipping containers —  does not itself mine cryptocurrency. It hosts the computers that do the mining. To use a gold mining analogy, Compute North would own the land where individual miners would pay a fee for the rights to pan for the precious metal.

After peaking in value last year, nearly all forms of cryptocurrency have crashed in recent months, losing $2 trillion in value and in some cases, costing investors most of their life savings, at least on paper.

 

NC grant program for schools was so popular, the money ran out in less than a week

School districts snapped up the small grants available purchase feminine hygiene products for students with funding from the state budget, but there wasn’t enough money to go around.

Sixty-six school districts and charter schools received grants of $500 to $5,000 to purchase feminine hygiene products for students, according to a report to the legislature from the state Department of Public Instruction. DPI distributed the money on a first-come, first-served basis, as the legislature directed.  The $250,000 the legislature appropriated was claimed in less than a week, and fewer than half of the 134 applications were funded. The legislature made the money available only this year.

In their requests, the school districts wrote of low-income students who missed school, had to use wadded-up toilet paper, or make embarrassing trips to the front office for supplies because their families could not afford them.

At some schools, employees use their own money to buy tampons or pads for students whose families cannot afford them. Other schools rely on a PTA or community donations.

“All grantees indicated a great need for student access to feminine hygiene products as they may not have access to them at home or their families may not have the financial means to purchase products themselves,” DPI’s report said.

“More than half of the grantees indicated that they either have Title I schools in their districts or that many of their students and families are living below the poverty line. For these students and families, feminine hygiene products are an expense they cannot afford, and therefore they have to rely on the school to provide these products. Many grantees also noted that an increase in the availability of hygiene products in school would help students stay in school when are menstruating and would alleviate student anxiety and embarrassment.”

With the realization that period poverty causes students to miss school, states have begun passing laws requiring public schools to provide menstrual hygiene products or providing school money to purchase them, Policy Watch has reported.

“As many grantees indicated, there is a direct link between student academic success and the provision of hygiene products in school,” DPI said in its report to legislators. “The grant program has helped to support districts and students by removing financial barriers to products and ensuring health and well-being is maintained so that students continue their academic growth.”

Fifteen states have laws providing menstrual hygiene products in schools, Stateline reported this month, citing information from the Alliance for Period Supplies.

The DPI report said school districts still ask about the grant program, with questions about when more money might be available.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat, filed a budget bill last year asking for the money, and the grant made it into the final budget. Murdock said in an email this week that getting the money in the budget was a bipartisan effort, with GOP Sens. Deanna Ballard, an education budget committee chairwoman, and Kathy Harrington, a Senate budget chairwoman, championing it.

Ballard and Harrington could not be reached this week.

The DPI report shows the need to continue to fund the grants, Murdock said in the email.

“With so many schools across the state applying for the funding, it shows that there is a real need for these products in our schools,” she wrote.