State audit faults oversight of $3.1 billion in coronavirus relief

State Auditor Beth Wood

The state Pandemic Recovery Office did not monitor spending of $3.1 billion in federal pandemic funds in a way that would catch misuse in a timely way, according to a state audit released Thursday.

The recovery office required recipients provide receipts and monthly spending reports with supporting documentation, the audit said. But the office did not independently verify the spending by comparing the reports to the supporting documents until November 2020, after most of the money had been spent.

Additionally, the recovery office sent out money without making sure all recipients had goals for accomplishing their objectives or ways to measure results.

In response, state budget director Charles Perusse and recovery office executive director Stephanie McGarrah said the state legislature funded the office at half the requested amount, which resulted in understaffing and a delay in full verification of recipient spending. The office established a nine-step process that balanced release of money to recipients with monitoring expenditures, they wrote. The office is adding staff in response to the audit findings.

In December, the Auditor’s Office released a report  critical of the state Department of Public Instruction’s monitoring of coronavirus relief fund spending. The audit faulted DPI oversight of the summer learning program and the school nutrition program.

The state legislature started the distributing the federal money in May 2020. Initially, federal law required it be spent by December 2020.

Thursday’s audit looked all 490 recipients of Coronavirus Relief Act money. Forty-three recipients did not report objectives, 302 of 447 reported objectives but no goals, and 57 of 145 reported objectives and goals, but had no way to measure progress, the audit said.

In their response, Perusse and McGarrah wrote that lack of staffing and funding, and the temporary nature of the recovery office contributed to the finding that performance measures “were not as robust as they could have been.”

The recovery office is set to dissolve in December.

First-of-its-kind bill would incentivize integration of North Carolina schools

Rep. Cecil Brockman

This week, Rep. Cecil Brockman introduced a first-of-its-kind bill to add measures of school segregation to North Carolina’s School Report Cards. If passed, H948 would provide policymakers, families, and students with new data to identify racially segregated schools and those in which opportunities and resources are being denied to certain student groups.

The bill is based on the maxim that “what gets measured, gets done.” By measuring and publicizing the extent to which our schools are segregated and the extent to which certain student groups are denied equal access to resources, leaders at all levels of government can then take steps to address these problems. Publishing the data on the School Report Card page would make this data transparent and widely available to students, parents, and other advocates invested in school integration.

First, the bill would assign each school a “proportionality score.” The proportionality score measures the extent to which the demographics of an individual school differ from the county in which the school is located. The bill would assign each school in the state – including charter schools – a designation of “highly proportional,” “proportional,” “somewhat disproportional,” or “highly disproportional” to identify which schools are the most racially segregated.

Additionally, the bill would gather information on the extent to which resources are disproportionately provided within a school. That is, H948 would require reporting on the equality of access to gifted programs, advanced courses, and experienced and credentialed teachers.

Finally, the bill would examine the equitable distribution of opportunities and resources across schools and student subgroups within a district. It would measure equality of access to instruction in arts and music, as well as access to support personnel such as psychologists, counselors, and nurses.

The bill stems from the work of the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education New Jersey, which developed the proportionality score metric to identify racially segregated schools, and the National Coalition on School Diversity, which created model legislation off which H948 is based (full disclosure, this author contributed to the NCSD report). H948 represents the first state effort to incorporate measures of school segregation into a state’s accountability system.

In addition to being innovative, the bill is timely and important. School segregation in North Carolina continues to harm students from all backgrounds. North Carolina has experienced a stark increase in the number of racially- and economically-isolated schools in the past decade. Legislative leaders continue to push ideas that exacerbate segregation such as unfettered charter school growth, municipal charter schools, and the potential break-up of large, county school districts.

Research continues to show that school integration benefits all students. Integrated schools tend to have higher test scores and narrower opportunity gaps. They positively impact educational attainment, lifetime earnings, incarceration rates, and health outcomes of Black students. Finally, integrated schools increase cross-racial trust and friendships and enhance students’ capacity for working with others.

Of course, there are many additional steps that policymakers could take to actively integrate our schools. Federal and state leaders should be providing our schools with adequate funding, offering financial and technical assistance to districts implementing school integration plans, addressing exclusionary school district boundaries, and by better regulating charter schools. Local leaders can modify attendance zone policies, create magnet schools, replace school resource officers with counselors and social workers, and implement culturally-responsive practices that uplift and affirm all students’ humanity. Still, Brockman’s bill offers an important first step in measuring and publicizing the ways in which school segregation continues to harm all of North Carolina’s students.

Wake County sought the death penalty for a man with severe mental illness; only a pandemic stopped it

A bipartisan group of North Carolina legislators introduced a bill this week to prohibit the death penalty for people with severe mental illness.

Wake County prosecutors knew that Kendrick Gregory had severe mental illness when they decided to try him capitally. In the eight months before the crime, he’d been hospitalized at least 20 times for mental illness. He checked himself into emergency rooms over and over, reporting symptoms of psychosis. On some occasions, he said he heard voices telling him to hurt himself.

In the five years that they sought to try him for the death penalty, his mental illness became only more apparent. In jail, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and twice found incompetent to stand trial. He was often unkempt and was unable to help his attorneys prepare his defense.

Instead of accepting that Mr. Gregory was simply too mentally ill to be tried capitally, Wake County prosecutors asked the judge to forcibly medicate him — an attempt to “restore” him to competency so they could ask a jury to kill him.

This kind of case is exactly the reason that Ohio recently made history by becoming the first state to ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illness, a law that will protect vulnerable people and save millions a year on costly capital trials. The Constitution says the death penalty is to be reserved for the most culpable defendants and the most calculated murders, but too often it’s used instead against vulnerable and marginalized people like Mr. Gregory, who are poor, Black, and suffering from diminished mental capacity.

It is both immoral and unconstitutional to execute people who cannot understand or regulate their actions. For exactly those reasons, federal and state laws bar the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities and children. There is no rational reason for executing people who committed crimes while in the grips of psychosis or whose mental illness prevents them from understanding the consequences of their actions.

Yet, in North Carolina, this remains an accepted practice. Guy LeGrande, who has been on death row since 1996, was allowed to represent himself at his murder trial while so delusional that he believed he was God and that Oprah and other celebrities were sending him messages through the television. His illness was on full display as he told the jury “you will worship me and proclaim me lord and master.” They promptly sentenced him to death, and he remains on death row today.

If not for a global pandemic, Mr. Gregory might have joined Mr. LeGrande on death row. Read more

House approved bill restricting classroom discussions about race moves to Senate

State Rep. Kandie Smith

A controversial bill restricting what North Carolina school children can be taught about America’s racial history was approved by the Republican-led House on Wednesday and is headed to the Senate where it is also likely to receive a favorable hearing.

House Bill 324 is like dozens of bills around the country being pushed by Republican legislatures trying to ensure unflattering parts of the nation’s history are not taught in public schools.

Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped the nation’s legal and social systems, is also a target of such bills.

In North Carolina, HB 324 would prohibit teachers from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist or that people are inherently racist or sexist. It would also prohibit teaching that whites or anyone else is responsible for the sins of their forefathers.

Critics of the bill believe it’s a response to new social studies standards adopted by the State Board of Education that require diverse views are included when history is taught.

“When I look at a bill like this, I have to question myself, why are we having this bill before us,” said Rep. John Autry, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “I believe it’s a reaction against the new and more inclusive social studies standards the State Board of Education passed.”

Autry said teachers must be trusted to engage students in tough conversations about America’s racial past, which includes slavery, Jim Crow laws and the cruelty heaped upon Native American.

“We’re conflating racial analysis with racism as a way of protecting the sensibility of us white folks,” Autry said.

He said no one is being taught that they are inherently racist in the state’s public schools.

“It’s simply a straw man,” he said.

Rep. James Gailliard, a Democrat from Nash County, called HB 324 an “anti-business” bill, explaining that the bill prohibits schools from employing diversity trainers and consultants.

“These are common practices in business today because businesses recognize that without a conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion that we can’t expand our workforce, it contributes to the bottom line and it helps companies identify their blind spots,” Gailliard said.

HB 324 is also an anti-education bill, he said, because it avoids tough conversations about systemic injustices, the residual impacts of those injustices, the benefits of diversity and the recognition that all people have value.

“This is where we strip our children of the understanding that there are heroes and villains in the world, where we strip our children of the reality that you can turn injustice into justice,” Gailliard said.

Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, a Guilford County Democrat and educator, said she is bothered to her “core” by HB 324.

The bill would prevent teachers from being truthful when discussing historical or political issues with students, Clemmons said.

She cited an incident during the George W. Bush presidency where a student asked her why there were no women or Black presidents.

“I am worried that bill [HB 324] would prevent me as that teacher in that moment from honestly answering that question,” Wheeler said. “Honestly, a lot of our history makes that true. The facts of our history have led to where we are. Until 1920, only white men could vote. Women could vote in 1920 but then people of color; not until 1965.”

Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, said conversations about race are challenging and uncomfortable but necessary.

“This bill spends a lot of time talking about what you can’t do,” Smith said. “There’s an entire list of don’ts in this bill but there is no mention of what we should do.”

She likened the introduction of HB 324 to a “book burning.”

“A small group of enraged individuals are looking to ban an entire concept of thought because it makes them uncomfortable,” Smith said. “The acquisition of knowledge is not a danger to our children but the banning of these ideas for the sake of maintaining the status quo, let’s be clear, that will continue to endanger the lives of Black and Brown children across the state and across this country.”

Rep. Charles Graham, a Robeson County Democrat and member of the Lumbee tribe, said many of his House colleagues were taught that American Indians were savages.

HB 324 would continue to circumvent history and send the wrong message to teachers, Graham said.

“I don’t know what inspired anyone to want to bring this to this body today, but let me say this, it’s wrong and as far as I’m concerned, it’s mean-spirited,” he said. “We need to be teaching about Black culture and what it has meant to this county, about our Native American culture and what it’s meant to this country, our Hispanic culture and what it means to this country.”

No Republicans rose to speak in support of the bill, but it has been endorsed by the House leadership and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, who said earlier this week that HB 324 encourages students to think freely and to respect differences of opinions.

“Classrooms should be an environment where all points of view are honored,” Truitt said. “There is no room for divisive rhetoric that condones preferential treatment of any one group over another.”

Truitt’s support of the bill comes at a time when the state board has made racial equity the center piece of its five-year strategic plan. It’s unclear whether her endorsement of HB 324 will strain the collegial relationship she’s worked to have with the board.

This year, Republican legislatures across the nation have introduced bills that would restrict educators’ ability to teach about systemic racism, sexism, bias and similar topics.

In Tennessee, the House of Representatives debated a last week that would ban classroom discussions about systemic racism. The state would withhold funding to schools that taught about systemic racism and white privilege under the bill.

The Tennessee House approved the bill along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it while Democrats opposed it. The Senate, however, declined to accept the legislation.

In Ohio, the legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit “teaching or advocating divisive concepts on race, color, nationality or sex, the Ohio Capital Journal reported.

Republican-led legislatures in Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho and other states have introduced similar bills.

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