What’s Left After the General Assembly Went Home

The North Carolina General Assembly has wrapped up one of the longest legislative sessions in recent memory.

Municipalities’ ability to make decisions specifically impacting their communities, public school funding being diverted to charter schools, light rail spending, status of sanctuary cities, and the discreteness of the search for the next UNC system president were all up for debate in the whirlwind of action over the final few days of the legislative session.

Local Government Control: Senate Bill 279

A piece of legislation was introduced on the final day of the legislative session that proposed restrictions on local governments, before flaming out in spectacular fashion.

The changes were introduced as part of an unrelated bill that started out in an attempt to address qualifications of sexual education experts to approve sex ed curricula in school districts across the state. Throughout the intense debate on Tuesday, social media lit up with protests over the surprise amendment. LGBT advocates argued the move was aimed at reversing decisions by some municipalities extending discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation.

After being voted down by the House Rules Committee, a previous version of the bill – without the restrictive language – was passed by the Senate.

Charter School Funding: House Bill 539

Another piece of controversial legislation was also stopped in committee Tuesday night. The bill would have shifted some traditional public school funding to charter schools.

Public schools already split funding with charter schools based on enrollment numbers, but the new proposal would have taken money from pots previously reserved for public schools and diverted it to charters across the state.

Supporters say the bill would just provide equal funding to charter schools. Opponents argued against allowing charter schools to split funding for nutritional meals and transportation with public schools, because charter schools are not required to provide the same food and transportation services as traditional schools.

The bill could be brought back up in the short session next year.

Lawmakers said they wanted more time to evaluate charter school needs.

Light Rail Spending Amendment of Revenue Law Changes: Senate Bill 605

The House had voted earlier in the week to pass an amendment that would have removed the $500,000 spending cap on light rail.

The cap was originally placed in the state budget with no discussion beforehand.

Some have called the cap a “project killer” for the Durham – Orange Light Rail project, because the 17-mile light rail proposal is counting on 25 percent of the funding to come from state dollars.

The Senate sent the amended legislation to committee, where it will stay until at least next April.

The legislation to remove the cap could be reevaluated next session.

Sanctuary Cities: House Bill 318

Legislation is heading to Governor Pat McCrory that would ban sanctuary city policies, similar to what Chapel Hill and Carrboro have in place, from being adopted in the future.

This places the status in our community in limbo with several jurisdictional questions left to be answered, likely through litigation.

Protestors delivered letters to Mcrory on Wednesday asking him to veto the legislation. Another protest was held on the UNC campus on Thursday.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt spoke with WCHL’s Blake Hodge about the proposal earlier in the week before it was passed. Listen below:

UNC President Search: Senate Bill 670

Finally, term limits have been placed for members to serve on the UNC Board of Governors, who will now only be able to serve three four-year terms on the 32-member board.

An amendment on the bill had called for a public meeting with the final three candidates for the president of the 17-campus UNC System.

That proposal was removed before the bill was finally passed to the governor.

Now the dozens of pieces of legislation that were nailed down in a fast-paced few hours await the signature of Governor Pat McCrory to become the law of the land.


PACE Students, Teachers Await Mid-August Decision

Lawyers wrapped up their arguments Tuesday in a hearing to determine whether a Carrboro charter school will remain open. But students and teachers at PACE Academy won’t know for several weeks whether they will be able to return to PACE in the fall.

After a meeting at PACE Academy, PACE student Addison Edwards takes a stack of papers from Jamie Bittner, his school’s occupational therapist.

“This is his paperwork for career and college promise,” Bittner says waving the stack of forms. “His GPA is outstanding, his SAT scores are outstanding, so he’s going to be taking community college courses while attending—hopefully PACE next year.”

Bittner says “hopefully PACE,” because it’s up in the air whether PACE will be open for Edwards to come back to in the fall.

In May, the State Board of Education voted not to renew the school’s charter over concerns about poor attendance records and non-compliance with some regulations for teaching students with disabilities. The school appealed that decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

After 4 days in court, it rests for Judge Phil Berger Jr. to decide if PACE will get to keep its charter. That has PACE student Jerry Garfunkel worried about where he’ll be in the fall.

“It’s scary to think about,” Garfunkel says. “I don’t really know where I’m going to go, or what I’m going to do.”

PACE says its mission is to serve students in grades 9 through 12 who aren’t thriving in traditional public schools. Half of PACE’s students have autism or other mental health diagnoses. Many are teen mothers, and some are homeless or former dropouts.  Garfunkel says he came to PACE because the traditional public school environment was much too stressful for him.

“I thought I was going to end up in the UNC psych ward if I stayed there any longer,” he says. “I almost had a mental breakdown in my study hall class.”

Garfunkel says the smaller class sizes and nurturing environment at PACE suit him much better.

“The people here are understanding, the students here are very kind, the teachers here are extremely qualified for their jobs,” he said. “I’ve just been going from like D’s and F’s to A’s. It’s incredible.”

Berger will deliver a judgment by August 13—less than two weeks before the start of the school year. PACE Assistant Principal Jane Miller says that means she and the other administrators aren’t just hoping for the best, they’re planning for it too.

“Rhonda, Jamie and I are still operating as if we are going to open on August 25,” Miller told a room of concerned parents, students, alumni and teachers. “Because if we don’t plan enough, we simply wouldn’t have enough time once we get the decision that affirms we stay open.”

At the same time, PACE administrators say they have a contingency plan. Miller says she and other staff members will spend the next weeks helping families identify traditional public schools, private schools and home-school groups in case PACE closes.


Judge Extends Hearing on PACE Academy

A hearing that will decide whether PACE Academy will keep its charter will go longer than expected.

Attorneys for PACE Academy Charter School and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) were scheduled to wrap up their arguments Thursday in a hearing that will determine whether PACE will remain open. But PACE’s attorney Phillip Adkins says there’s more questioning and argumentation to be had.

“It has gone longer than we expected,” Adkins said. “And given our schedules and the judge’s schedule, we’ve decided to return on Tuesday morning at 8:30.”

PACE Academy is appealing the DPI’s decision not to renew the school’s charter. This is the second time the school has faced closure. In 2013 the Charter School Advisory Board and the State Board of Education (SBE) expressed concerns about low attendance, poor academic performance, compliance issues and fiscal difficulties.

PACE was allowed to keep its charter as part of a settlement agreement last summer.

But this year, the DPI said it found evidence of continuing poor attendance, bad record-keeping and compliance issues. In May, the SBE recommended the charter not be renewed.

Adkins says PACE wasn’t given a fair shot to present its case to the SBE.

“If the Department of Public Instruction would let the charter school—before the meetings—see the material that’s going to be presented, exactly what they’re going to present, so that they can prepare to reply to that—because it’s supposed to be a conversation—then I think it would be much fairer, and we wouldn’t be here,” Adkins said.

Adkins says the judge’s decision will hinge on whether the school received ample opportunity to make its case and whether its methods for tracking attendance were legal. The school counts some students as present when they take their classes off-site, but the DPI has taken issue with the practice.

“We now in the courtroom understand each side’s position,” Adkins said, “but unfortunately I think it’s going to have to go to a decision the judge has to make.”

The judge in the case is Phil Berger Jr., the son of Senate President Phil Berger. The hearing continues next week. Adkins says PACE is hoping Berger will rule on the case by the end of July.


Carrboro Charter School Battles to Stay Open

PACE Academy will fight in court Tuesday to keep its doors open.

Teachers, students, parents and alumni of PACE Academy gathered at the State Board of Education building Monday morning. They were there to protest the Board’s decision to revoke PACE’s charter.

The state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended PACE be closed due to concerns about low attendance, financial problems and compliance issues. But protest organizer Stephanie Perry says she believes those concerns are unfounded.

“Over the past two years, PACE Academy has been aggressively targeted by the Charter School Advisory Board in a very unfair way,” she said.

Perry says the advisory board did not take into account the school’s unique population when making its assessment. PACE serves students in grades nine through twelve. The school says half of its students have mental health problems or learning disabilities and that many of its students are teenage parents and former drop-outs. Perry says that means many PACE students take classes on a nontraditional schedule and weren’t there when advisory board members came out to check the school’s attendance

“Because of the vocational curriculum, a lot of the students have on-the-job training and internships,” Perry said.

PACE has appealed a May decision by a State Board of Education review panel that revoked the school’s charter. Senate President Phil Berger’s son, Judge Phil Berger Jr., will hear arguments beginning Tuesday.

This is the second time PACE has had its charter on the line. The school’s charter was nearly revoked in 2013 over similar concerns.


Board of Education Chair ‘Distressed’ by Expedition School

With the opening of the new charter school, The Expedition School, in Hillsborough, one particular member of the Board of Education is voicing his concern.

Stephen H. Halkiotis, currently serving as the Chair for the Board of Education, says that though he wishes The Expedition School well as it begins its first days, he is certainly unsettled by the growing number of charter schools in North Carolina and the issues that it creates.

“I am deeply distressed,” says Halkiotis, “that the State of North Carolina and the State Legislature have chosen to continually expand charter schools in this state, but not hold them accountable to the same standards and responsibilities that our public schools have been held accountable for a long, long time.”

Halkiotis says that there are a number of necessary items that are not being addressed properly in charter schools, including transportation, food, and handicap accessibility. By ignoring these regulations, he feels that charter schools are demonstrating dishonesty.

“I think they put a twist on that to pretend that they’re really public, but they’re really not,” says Halkiotis. “Unless I’ve seen the eligibility criteria and fully understand them, I’m not convinced that charter schools are allowing an open door to each and every segment of our society, and that’s the thing that troubles me the most about them.”

When speaking on his position as Chair and how it relates to the functioning of schools like The Expedition School, Halkiotis says that the situation is about much more than himself, but about how North Carolina education is meant to be.

“It’s not about any individual, it’s about the organization,” says Halkiotis. “It’s about the institution of being a school. It’s not about me as Chair, or anybody else on that Board. We’re just seven people elected by the citizenry at large to give the best possible direction to the school system and moving our public school systems forward. That’s what I’m committed to.”

The Expedition School opened its doors yesterday at 10 a.m.

For information on The Expedition School, click here.


The Expedition School Opens Its Doors

A new charter school, known as The Expedition School, is opening its doors in Hillsborough this Saturday, July 19th.

Director of Education and Curriculum at The Expedition School, Tammy Finch, describes the basics of what the school is all about and their mission statement, which is “to embrace the natural curiosity of children and empower them to become innovative problem solvers and community builders,” and “to provide excellent education through an experiential, project based, and STEM focused curriculum.”

“The Expedition School is a public charter school,” says Finch. “The focus of our school is hands-on, project-based learning. We also have a STEM focus, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.”

The school offers classes for Kindergarten through sixth grade, but plans to expand up to eighth grade within next two years. Any student in North Carolina is allowed to enroll, and all students will attend without charge.

In addition to the progressive curriculum, Finch says that they are pleased with the location of the school, as well as how it is set up to allow for effective learning for the young students.

“We are very fortunate to be working with Hedgehog Holdings, who has helped to renovate a portion of the old Eno River Mill in Hillsborough for our school,” says Finch. “It has been beautifully renovated into classrooms, and a multi-purpose room, and a music room, and beautiful spaces for children to learn with large windows and natural lighting.”

Those interested are encouraged to attend the grand-opening ribbon cutting ceremony from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the opening Saturday. Following the ceremony, the facility will open for tours.

For more information on The Expedition School, click here.


Local Leaders Rally To Keep PACE Academy Open

CARRBORO- Lisa Gangarosa is the mother of a ninth grader at PACE Academy. She says her family was shocked to hear the Carrboro-based charter school might have to close its doors this summer.

“Of course it is creating a lot of anxiety,” says Gangarosa. “Since my daughter’s only in the ninth grade, she’s very worried about where she would go next year if PACE is not open.”

PACE Academy opened in 2004 to serve high school students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems who have not succeeded at traditional schools. More than half the 169 enrolled have been identified as special needs students.

This December, the state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended to the North Carolina Board of Education that PACE not have its charter renewed, which would force the school to close at the end of this school year. The CSAB report cited testing noncompliance, fiscal irregularities and low academic performance.

Joel Medley directs the state’s Office of Charter Schools. In a letter regarding the advisory board’s recommendation, he writes:

“These members heard the concerns and thoroughly interviewed representatives from PACE Academy. Based upon the responses provided by the PACE representatives, they unanimously recommended that this school not receive a renewal; and a unanimous recommendation is a rather strong statement.”

Medley says representatives from his office met with PACE administrators four times in 2012, but school officials were not responsive to the department’s concerns.

However PACE Principal Rhonda Franklin, in a letter to the State Board of Education, calls the renewal process “fundamentally unfair.”

She argues the school should not be faulted for its 51% graduation rate because many students struggle with autism, mental health issues and learning disabilities. She said it s not uncommon for students to attend PACE for five or six years to master basic life skills.

“By looking only at PACE’s graduation rate, without considering its mission, the concentration of special needs students and their practice of keeping students in school until they are prepared to leave, transforms one of PACE’s strengths into a weakness. It is tantamount to measuring a square peg with a round hole.”

In response to questions about student enrollment and the school’s financial stability, Franklin writes:

“Once PACE was notified of problems in any area, the school worked diligently to correct the deficiencies. There is no evidence of a “history of non-compliance.'”

Since the advisory board’s recommendation was made public, local leaders have been rallying in support of PACE Academy.

Last month, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella agreed to write a letter to the state Board of Education in support of PACE Academy.

In his letter, Forcella praised PACE for working with students facing learning and behavioral challenges, and promised greater collaboration between the public school system and the charter in the future.

Board Chair Jamezetta Bedford noted PACE has had problems in the past, but nonetheless, she agreed the board should support a school offering some an alternative path to graduation.

“These are kids who really need a different program and who need support,” said Bedford. “These are kids who have already failed in our high schools; they have already chosen to go to another school. Not all have failed, but many of them have, so anything we can do to help kids graduate, let’s do it.”

Carrboro Aldermen voted unanimously last week to support PACE Academy in its bid to stay open beyond this school year. Randee Haven O’Donnell stressed this support only extends to PACE, not to the recent push to expand charter schools statewide.

“It’s really important for folks in the community to know we’re not supporting charter schools in general, we’re supporting PACE Academy in its continuance,” said Haven-O’Donnell.

State House  Representative Graig Meyer also added his name to the list of local leaders who support PACE. He says in his work with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School system he’s seen that PACE offers a good fit for students who don’t always thrive in the public school environment.

The State Board of Education will vote in February to decide if PACE Academy stays open.

In the meantime, the Gangarosa family and others are left pondering their options.

“My daughter really enjoys going there and I feel like staff really does go the extra mile to help struggling students,” says Gangarosa. “We’re just taking one step at a time. We haven’t really thought about what our alternatives for next year are.”

You can find more about the renewal process for PACE Academy here.


Charter School Changes Approved By NC Legislature

Photo by Brian J. Matis

RALEIGH – Legislation heading to Gov. Pat McCrory allows North Carolina charter schools to follow the lead of local traditional schools on criminal history checks for employees.

A negotiated final version of the bill passed the House and Senate on Tuesday. The measure creates more rules to govern a growing number of public charter schools, but drops plans to create a separate panel to oversee them. The legislation would essentially retain an advisory commission already in place to make recommendations to the State Board of Education.

The proposal retains the current requirement that at least half the teachers at charter schools meet state certification requirements. Earlier versions of the bill would have allowed charter school directors to decide whether to check job applicants for any criminal history.