Education

Public school advocates to unleash ‘Twitter storm’ in protest of Superintendent Johnson’s private dinner

A group of public schools advocates upset about being uninvited to Superintendent Mark Johnson’s invitation only dinner have new plans for Tuesday.

The advocates are planning to unleash a “Twitter Storm” during the two hour dinner to protest Johnson’s decision to make a “major announcement” about the state’s public education system in a private setting.

Susan Book, an organizer for Save Our Schools NC, said advocates discussed gathering at the Raleigh Convention Center to protest the dinner but decided to tweet about the event instead.

“By having a Tweet Storm, everyone can participate in advocacy,” Book said. “Our teachers, parents, and community members can have a say in what is happening no matter how close or far away from Raleigh they live.”

Johnson has promised a “major announcement” about the state’s public education system during the dinner on Tuesday.

Book and other advocates contend such an announcement should be open to the public.

“For many of us, this doesn’t sit right,” Book said. “A public figure making a public announcement about public school should make the venue public.”

Suzanne Miller, an organizer for N.C. Families for Testing Reform, told N.C. Policy Watch last week that Johnson’s announcement should be made in public.

“If it’s a public announcement about public education, why is it being made behind closed doors?” Miller asked.

Dozens of public education advocates and teachers used Eventbrite to secure tickets for the event, but received email messages from Johnson last week telling them they could not attend.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Book said the snub from Johnson is one of many.

“[Superintendent] Mark Johnson has continually chosen to stay silent on major issues plaguing public education,” she said. “Parent and teacher advocates alike have tried to sit down and discuss real issues facing their schools but our superintendent rarely responds.”

One Wake County teacher, Kim Mackey wrote an open letter to Johnson after her ticket to the event was “revoked.” Mackey will attend the event thanks to an invitee who gave up their seat for her.

Drew Elliott, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, told NC Policy Watch that Mackey was one of about 25 to 30 uninvited individuals who signed up for the event when the registration page was shared on social media.

Elliot added that half of the guest will be educators.

Johnson’s “major announcement” has fueled speculation that North Carolina will be one of five states selected for a new K-12 initiative funded by the conservative Koch network.

Book hopes that’s not Johnson’s big announcement.

“I’d love the announcement to be a restoration of teaching assistants or investment in textbooks,” Book said.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Board of Elections uncovers ‘unlawful’ absentee ballot scheme in 9th congressional district race

Several people gathered Monday outside the State Bar and called for a new election before the start of an evidentiary hearing about alleged absentee ballot fraud in the 9th congressional district. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

A political operative working for Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Mark Harris paid people to help him collect, fill out and turn in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties leading up to last year’s midterm election, according to evidence gathered by the State Board of Elections.

Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach said Monday there was a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” uncovered in those areas, which has delayed the certification of a couple races, including Harris’ for the 9th congressional district.

Allegations have swirled for months around Leslie McCrae Dowless, who was paid (and paid others) to illegally harvest absentee ballots, but the evidentiary hearing Monday is the first time the most shocking details have been released.

Dowless stared straight-faced ahead from the back of a room at the State Bar as a preview of evidence about his alleged operation flashed on two TV screens up front. His expression didn’t change when his former stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, testified about how he paid her to help with the absentee ballots and then tried to get her to plead the fifth at this hearing in a letter last week.

“I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up,” the typed-letter stated. “I am taking the 5th.”

The allegation of obstruction was a surprise to most in the room, including Dowless’ attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary. Dowless ignored questions about it from reporters following him out of the room during a lunch break.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Singletary said, adding that she was sure he didn’t give that letter to Britt.

McCrae Dowless (right of the man with the blond hair) watched an evidentiary hearing Monday alleging he pulled off an absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties last year. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Singletary maintained Dowless’ innocence despite the evidence presented during the first half of the day. She said she wasn’t sure before the hearing if Britt was going to testify. When asked if Dowless tried to stop anyone from testifying, she snapped, “hell no!”

Britt testified that she and others were paid somewhere between $150 and $175 per 50 absentee ballot registrations they collected and were later paid $125 per 50 actual absentee ballots they picked up, which changed in the last couple weeks before the election to a flat rate of $200 per week. They were paid in cash when they turned the ballots into Dowless at either his office or his home.

Britt said Dowless explained what she was supposed to do and that she thought they were helping people register to vote. Bladen County is a poor area, she added, so they were giving voters more opportunities to cast ballots.

She couldn’t recall how much money she was paid entirely for her work or how many people’s ballots she was personally involved in helping with.

“We dealt with a lot of people, so I’m not really sure how many people it was we registered to vote,” Britt testified.

Other things she testified about included Dowless instructing her to use the same color ink to sign as a witness as the voter’s signature and how they filled in some incomplete ballots where voters didn’t choose candidates for certain races. She also admitted to signing her mother’s name as a witness on some forms when she was told she had been a witness on too many ballots.

It wasn’t until Dowless “fussed” at her for putting upside-down stamps on ballot mail-in envelopes that she realized they were doing something wrong. He told her they didn’t want to raise any red flags for the Board of Elections to catch on.

“I guess one or two wouldn’t have mattered but if you had 10 or 15 come in like that, they’d think, ‘Now, hey, wait a minute, why are they all coming in that way?'” Britt said.

She also testified that they would never mail more than nine or 10 ballots at a time, and they would mail them from mailboxes closest to voters to prevent suspicion.

Britt expressed some sympathy for Harris, who she said she believed didn’t know about the absentee ballot scheme.

“I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Harris was at the hearing. He wore a navy blue suit and lighter blue tie and his hand covered his mouth for much of the hearing. His Democratic opponent Dan McCready was not present.

Overall evidence presented by the Strach showed that at least 788 absentee ballot request forms in Bladen County were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Blade County for the general election. At least 231 of the same requests, but as many as 449, were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Robeson County.

The way the scheme operated was that Dowless’ workers obtained the absentee ballot request forms from voters then turned them back into him for payment. The request forms were photocopied and maintained at Dowless’ office and then delivered to the local Board of Elections by Dowless, according to the State Board.

The actual unsealed absentee ballots were also collected directly from voters, some with no witness signatures or with only one witness signature. Those ballots were kept at Dowless’ home or office, and he instructed people to falsely sign as witnesses and fill out votes on blank or incomplete forms.

Red Dome Consulting, hired by Harris, paid Dowless $131,375.57 between July 3, 2017 and Nov. 7, 2018. Strach said it’s not clear all of those payments were for the ballots regarding the 9th congressional district and it could include payments from other candidates.

The State Board was unable to confirm if any of the early vote totals were leaked, according to Strach.

The State Board, seated at the end of January, could decide this week whether or not to certify Harris’ race. The evidentiary hearing could take several days, and even if the race is certified, the U.S. House could launch its own investigation and refuse to seat Harris.

Bob Cordle, Chairman of the State Board, said if they decide to order a new election and not certify the race, it could be based on the number of fraudulent absentee ballots or the entirety of the improprieties that could taint the race and cast doubt on the fairness of it.

“Our voters must have trust in our process and believe their vote must be counted and believe elections must be fair,” Cordle said.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

News, Uncategorized, Voting

Six things to have on your radar this week

Photo by Melissa Boughton

#1  We kick off the week with the State Board of Elections holding a much-anticipated evidentiary hearing today on claims of irregularities related to absentee by-mail voting and other alleged activities in the 9th Congressional District.

The hearing got underway at 10:00am at the North Carolina State Bar in downtown Raleigh.

Outside, pro-democracy organizations have gathered to call for accountability and a new election.

Currently, Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, but the race has not been certified and the congressional seat remains unfilled.

Policy Watch’s Courts and Law reporter Melissa Boughton is live tweeting the proceedings, which are expected to last a couple of days. You can follow her coverage on Twitter at @mel_bough.

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#2 This afternoon Gov. Roy Cooper will deliver remarks at a ceremony honoring North Carolina’s 9th Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green at the North Carolina State Capitol.

The program will start at 4:00 p.m., with a reception to follow. For those who are unable to attend in person, watch the ceremony online here: https://bit.ly/2RarWjD

You can learn more about Green in this 2018 piece by reporter David Menconi.

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#3 Numerous legislative committees are meeting Tuesday and Wednesday– too many to mention them all. Here are just a couple to pay attention to:

9:00 AM – The Senate Rules Committee meets to discuss Senate Bill 5, a school construction bill titled “Building North Carolina’s Future” in 1027/1128 of the Legislative Building.  Policy Watch’s Greg Childress detailed the bill here last week.

10:00 AM – The Joint Health Care Committee will hear from State Treasurer Dale Folwell and Dr. Michael Waldrum, NCHA Board Chair on the proposed State Health Plan Pricing Model. That meeting will be in 643 of the LOB.

Wednesday’s 8:30 AM Joint Appropriations Committee will include a revenue forecast/budget outlook presentation by Dr. Barry Boardman in Room 643 LOB.

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

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# 4 Tuesday evening at 6:00pm State Superintendent Mark Johnson hosts a special invitation-only leadership dinner at the Raleigh Convention Center.

Johnson has promised a major announcements for North Carolina’s education system along with Kelly King, the CEO of BB&T.  But the event has started on a somewhat sour note with Johnson revoking tickets for teachers and public school supporters who had signed-up to attend.

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#5 – Wednesday evening the NC Budget & Tax Center hosts a special talk in Durham on economic issues facing our state.  Under the banner of Economy for All, this event seeks to shape current debate about the role of public policy in advancing more equitable economic outcomes and informing the general public about the issues that we must address to fully realize our potential for greater well-being.

The public is invited to hear from Professor Sandy Darity about his extensive work on advancing an equitable economy in our country and the policy choices that can make that possible.

Learn how you can be part of the conversation here.

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Tina Tchen

#6 – The Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama speaks Thursday at Duke University.

During her eight years at the White House, Tina Tchen served as chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, special assistant to President Barack Obama, and the executive director of the Council on Women and Girls, leading the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families and the first-ever United State of Women Summit.

Tchen will share her unique perspective and insights on workforce diversity and inclusion, breaking through male-dominated industries, and ending campus assault.

The event will begin at 7:00pm at the Bryan Center Reynolds Industries Theater in Durham.

Environment

Worried about your well water? Scientists are offering free tests this month.

Environmental scientists from Virginia Tech and UNC Chapel Hill are offering free well water testing from Feb. 20 to 27 to any resident or business using a private well. According to a press release from the scientists, the samples will be analyzed for metals such as lead, copper, arsenic and chromium. Anyone in and near Iredell County can request testing, and you do not have to live in the communities where pick up locations are available. However, limited number of kits are available, so they will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Detailed sampling instructions will be provided. Confidential water quality results will be mailed to residents’ homes.

The sampling is similar to that conducted in Robeson County after Hurricane Florence.

Questions: Contact Andrew George at andrewg@unc.edu or 919-966-7839 or Kelsey Pieper at kpieper@vt.edu or 518-928-0177.

Here is the schedule:

WHERE TO PICK UP SAMPLING BOTTLES

Feb. 20-27, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.: Iredell County Health Department, 318 Turnersburg Hwy, Statesville

Mooresville: Government Center South, 610 E. Center Ave.

Statesville: Building Standards Division, 349 N. Center St.

Feb. 27, 5-7:30 p.m.: Rocky Mount United Methodist Church, 1739 Perth Road, Mooresville

WHERE AND WHEN TO RETURN SAMPLES FOR ANALYSIS

All samples must be returned on Thursday, Feb. 28, 6-9 a.m., at Rocky Mount United Methodist Church

Commentary, Education

Report: Low wages vexing early childhood education in North Carolina

Earlier this week, the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center released a report analyzing the role that public investments in North Carolina’s early childhood workforce could play in supporting our state’s goals of delivering high-quality learning experiences to our youngest children.

The report highlights the realities low-wage work presents for early childhood educators and students, and promotes a two-generation approach to address these grim realities.

According to the report, North Carolina’s childhood system faces two major barriers:

(1) Parents simply cannot afford to pay rising child care costs with stagnate and low wages.

(2) Early childhood educators can’t make ends meet and deliver a quality learning environment for each child on their low wages.

North Carolina has made commitments towards providing high quality early childhood programs. However, the state continues to fall short in ensuring early childhood educators can provide for themselves and their families while also providing high-quality care to the state’s children.

If the benefits of North Carolina’s early childhood system are to be fully realized, these educators’ wages must match the importance and long-term impacts of their work. Only then can they cover the costs of their every-day needs, including child care, and put their energy and time toward the education of their students.

One place to begin investing in early childhood students and their educators is existing compensation and professional development programs such as the Infant Toddler Educator AWARD$ program, the Child Care WAGE$ program, and the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.) program. If brought to scale statewide, these tools can be designed to ensure early childhood educators’ compensation aligns with their credentials and with that of others in the education profession.

North Carolina has a robust infrastructure in place to support the early childhood workforce and strengthen the quality of early childhood programs. A focus on adequately and equitably funding that infrastructure will ensure that each child is able to thrive and that the workers — often parents themselves — can as well.

Martine Aurelien is a policy fellow at the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center.