NCGA Cracks Down on Graffiti

A bill to impose tougher penalties on graffiti vandals is on Gov. McCrory’s desk, waiting to be signed.

House Bill 552 makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to create graffiti vandalism. However, it’s charged as a Class H felony if the offender has two or more prior convictions for graffiti vandalism.

A Class H felony carries a sentence of four-to-25 months.

The final, amended bill passed the House 98-11.

Democrat Verla Insko represents Orange County District 56 in the state House. She voted for HB552.

“The amendment that Sen. Stein added in the Senate made it more clearly targeted to gang members, and not to just innocent graffiti,” said Insko.

She’s referring to District 16 Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat. (Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat representing Orange and Durham, had an excused absence, and did not vote.)

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood agreed with Insko that gang-related graffiti is a real concern.

“Tagging has been a problem for some years, in the Chapel Hill and Orange County and Hillsborough and Mebane and surrounding areas of our county” said Blackwood. “And that is, gangs who are tagging territory by putting their symbols up to let everyone know ‘I’ve got control over this ground.’”

That means drug trafficking. And when other gangs start X-ing out the original tags, that, basically, is a declaration of turf war.

Blackwood recalled how the late Robin Britt, best-known as owner of Merritt’s Store & Grill, was forced to deal with that problem at the former site of another one of her businesses.

“Robin ran Britt’s BP on Mt. Carmel Church Road,” said Blackwood. “Well, as soon as that business closed down, and the doors were shut, and the windows were covered over, graffiti tagging started to occur on that building. And we went to Robin, and we said ‘Hey, look, we’ve got some tagging going on. We want to cover that up.’

“And so she had somebody immediately go out an pressure wash and take that stuff off. The quicker we let them know we’re not going to tolerate it, the quicker we get it off of these buildings and properties, the better off the community stands.”

Even when it comes to the stupidest, least threatening forms of graffiti, the cleanup is annoying and expensive for business owners.

For the past five years, David Yu has owned the Gourmet Kingdom restaurant on Carrboro’s Main Street.

Both he and his neighbor Carquest Auto Parts have been repeat victims of graffiti vandalism in recent years. Gourmet Kingdom’s outside walls are immaculately clean right now, while Carquest’s wall facing the parking lot they share is defaced with a few crude tags and an anarchy symbol.

Yu said the last incident at his business was about six months ago. As always, he had it painted over. It costs him around $200 every time. Yu doesn’t even remember what kind of things get spray-painted on his wall. He just calls it “nonsense.”

He said he likes what little he’s heard about the bill.

“That’s good,” he said. “That protects the business. It’s just a better way to regulate this kind of nonsense.”

In the Senate, HB552 passed 40-9.

District 23 Sen. Valerie Foushee, a Democrat from Hillsborough, voted against HB552.

“This whole school-to-prison pipeline is really concerning to me,” said Foushee. “And when I saw what this bill was really going to do, it just made it apparent to me that we are making felonies out of many situations where I think we need to do some other work.”

That work, she said, should include providing more educational and employment opportunities for young people at risk.

Foushee added that she’s also worried that penalty changes are being made without recommendations from the Sentencing Commission.

According to a fiscal impact study attached to the bill, it will cost the Department of Public Safety Prison Section up to $3,500 for each active sentence imposed.

And there are no assumptions on the deterrent effect of HB552, or its impact on prison population.

It all begs the question: Why not just make graffiti artists clean up their own messes? Wouldn’t that save taxpayers and business owners a lot of money, while teaching a valuable lesson to young offenders?

Insko said she likes that idea. So did Blackwood.

“You’re reading my mind,” said Blackwood. “That’s part of a pre-arrest diversion program we’re looking at.”

CHCCS Looks To Revamp Teacher Pay Plan

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials want to move away from longevity bonuses for teachers to a pay scale that rewards professional development. While that might mean more money for some educators, it could come at a cost to others.

“Some will be very upset, yet I think it’s the best thing to do, in the long-term, for teachers, so that you don’t have to go be an assistant principal in order to make more money,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member Jamezetta Bedford, speaking at a board meeting last week.

Last year the North Carolina General Assembly passed a budget that requires school systems to submit a plan for differentiated teacher pay. But CHCCS officials say they want to make sure the pay plan the district adopts will support the progress of all teachers, not just the top performers.

Board Chair Mike Kelley said the plan under consideration now meets that goal.

“A possible alternative that the state legislature could impose on us might look very ugly, but this to me seems like its homegrown- it comes from our professionals and it’s been developed and thought out in a way which is very careful, deliberative and not reactionary,” said Kelley.

A committee of teachers, staffers and advisors from UNC’s School of Education recently sat down to evaluate options for reconfiguring teacher pay.

They came up with a plan in which teachers would earn points for participating in professional development and get credit for rising student test scores. These points would then translate to salary increases.

But this could mean those teachers who don’t invest in professional development might lose out on potential pay raises, as longevity bonuses would no longer be guaranteed.

Still, given that many teachers have seen their compensation levels frozen for years, Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said the new plan might be better than the status quo.

“Their current reality is they’ve been standstill for six, seven years, and now the new model that the state has in terms of the salary schedule shows that raises come every five years,” LoFrese told the board. “So we’re trying to change that and we think this is a positive step in that direction.”

Superintendent Tom Forcella told the board last week the full financial details are not yet available, but administrators want to make sure it doesn’t cost the district more, or cause those currently employed as teachers to lose ground. Board Chair Kelley warned it might be tough to do both.

“Unless there’s new money for salaries- and that would probably have to come from the state in some fashion, because it is probably not likely going to come from the district- then there may have to be some redistribution of the funds that are available,” said Kelley.

The school board will discuss the plan further at the district’s planning retreat in February. Administrators will present a final proposal to the board in March.

Local Leaders Eye 2015 NCGA With Cautious Optimism

As the General Assembly reconvenes, local leaders say they hope legislators will take a more favorable view of municipal issues in 2015.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says during the last legislative session, some members of the General Assembly declared war on North Carolina’s cities.

“In the last legislature, the relationship between the legislature and cities was not very good,” says Kleinschmidt. “We had several members of the legislature who seemed to be at war with the cities that they were representing, particularly Representative Stone and Representative Moffitt.”

But Kleinschmidt says he’s optimistic that this year will be different, in part because those representatives were voted out of office.

Though the House and Senate are still under firm Republican control, state Democrats managed to gain three seats in the November election. Two of the incumbents who lost their seats led the charge to rein in municipal authority. Kleinschmidt says their loss sends a message to those who would target city government.

He’s also looking to Governor Pat McCrory to take a stand on a number of controversial issues including the statewide expansion of Medicaid.

“Now he’s got to decide if he’s going to pick some fights, and it looks like he’s already laying the groundwork for some of those fights,” says Kleinschmidt.

A recent report from George Washington University shows North Carolina lost $2.7 billion dollars last year when Republican leaders decided to forgo Medicaid expansion. The state stands to lose $3.3 billion more next year.

There’s also a showdown looming on historic preservation tax credits. The General Assembly repealed them last year, but even before the legislature reconvened, civic leaders from across the state launched a bi-partisan effort to bring them back.

“We have some lines being drawn and that’s going to be fun to watch,” says Kleinschidt. “Now, can Chapel Hill and out legislative delegation get in there and exploit some of that? That remains to be seen.”

Kleinschmidt and other members of the Chapel Hill Town Council sat down recently with state Senators Valerie Foushee and Mike Woodard, as well as Representative Graig Meyer and a spokesperson from Representative Verla Insko’s office to hash out plans for the 2015 legislative session. Kleinschmidt says the local delegation will mostly be playing defense to help towns maintain their revenue sources and planning authority.

If the General Assembly follows through on a promise to do away with extra-territorial jurisdictions, it could throw a wrench in Chapel Hill’s plan to help fund a sewer project in the Rogers Road community by extending the town’s ETJ to encompass the neighborhood.

“It would take Chapel Hill out of the equation,” says Kleinschmidt. “We would have to find some roundabout ways to provide direct financial contributions.”

Despite reports that Republican leaders have already begun conducting closed-door sessions on education policy that shut out Democratic leaders, Kleinschmidt says he and other local leaders are looking to the upcoming legislative session with hope.

“At this point, let’s decide to be optimistic and hope that the end is near for those closed door meetings, that there will be attempts to bring in members of the minority to advise and provide some input into the policies of our state.”

The 2015 legislative session convenes Wednesday for a one-day organizational session. The General Assembly will reconvene on January 28.

Foushee, Meyer, Insko Easily Win State House And Senate Seats

Democratic incumbents swept away their Republican challengers in three local races for State House and Senate.

Valerie Foushee, Verla Insko and Graig Meyer will all be returning to Raleigh to represent Senate District 23 and House Districts 56 and 50.

Foushee defeated Mary Lopez-Carter with 68 percent of the vote for the Senate 23 seat representing Orange and Chatham counties.

Foushee says she’s hoping Democrats will be able to advocate for more progressive issues in the next legislative session .

“I think that there is a push across the state for consideration of Medicaid expansion,” says Foushee. “I think that we’ve heard from people that believe that North Carolina is what it is because of previous investments in education; we’ll be able to push that agenda again, so I look forward to that.”

Meyer beat Hillsborough pastor Rod Cheney with the smallest margin among the three Democrats. Meyer won with 57 percent of the vote, Chaney garnered 42 percent.

Meyer says he took nothing for granted in his first campaign for office. He raised more than $230,000 and contributed much of that to support candidates in more hotly contested races.

“It doesn’t do me any good to be in the back row of a minority party that can’t even break a veto,” says Meyer. “So I wanted to make sure that we elected Democrats in Wake County, Buncome County, Lee County, places where we had targeted races. People in some of those areas can’t raise as much money as Orange County, so I wanted to help do what I could to help elect those candidates so we can make some good changes in the legislature.”

In the House 56 race representing Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Verla Insko won against Dave Carter 81 percent to 18 percent.

Insko returns to the State House for her 10th term. Foushee and Meyer were appointed to their positions last fall following the resignation of former Senator Ellie Kinnaird.

More Than 400 Disenfranchised By New NC Voting Rules

Democracy North Carolina says 454 voters who would have had their ballots counted under 2012 election rules were not able to vote in the May Primary thanks to two key changes made by the General Assembly.

North Carolina’s sweeping election reform bill was signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory in 2013. Among the many changes to voting rules, the new law did away with same-day registration during Early Voting and no longer allowed voters to cast a provisional ballot if they show up to vote outside their assigned precinct.

Democracy North Carolina says new analysis shows the laws are disproportionately affecting minority and Democratic voters.

Black voters, who make up 22 percent of the state’s registered voters, counted for 39 percent of those whose ballots were rejected. Democrats are 42 percent of all registered voters, but were 57 percent of those disenfranchised by the new rules.
The data was released one month before the deadline to register to vote in the November general election. Voting advocates say it’s important to double-check voting status now because the October 10 deadline is your last chance to register.

To check your registration status and see a sample ballot, go to

You can find the full report from Democracy North Carolina here.

Democrats Outraise GOP In Race For Local NCGA Seats

North Carolina State Senator Valerie Foushee and Representative Graig Meyer are each running for office for the first time since being appointed to their positions last fall, but their relative newcomer status isn’t proving a hindrance to high-dollar fundraising.

According to campaign finance reports, Meyer has brought in more than $119,000 this election season. Of that, he’s spent $50,000, leaving $69,700 in his campaign coffers. Meanwhile Rod Chaney, the Republican challenger vying for the House 50 seat, has raised approximately $7,200 and spent $2,000.

In the race for Senate District 23, Valerie Foushee has raised $56,600 and spent $32,900, leaving her with $26,900 in the bank as the fall campaign season heats up. Foushee’s opponent Mary Lopez-Carter, by contrast, has raised just $2,200 and spent half.

In the House District 56 race, incumbent Verla Insko has brought in $117,000 and spent all but $33,000. Her opponent, Dave Carter, reports raising $517, He’s spent about $150, with $360 on hand.

All candidates report donations from political action committees. Meyer has received $7,000 from PACs including $500 from the NC Dental Society and $4,000 from fellow Representative Insko’s campaign. He has donated $9,000 to other candidates or committees.

Foushee reports collecting $8,650 from political action committees including $5,000 from Lillian’s List, and $750 from McGuire Woods LLC, a Richmond-based lobbying firm representing attorneys.

Insko received $5,000 in donations from PACs, including $1,000 each from the Nationwide Carolina Political Participation Fund, NC Advocates for Justice and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC Employee PAC. A large chunk of Insko’s spending, $65,000 worth, has gone to fund other campaigns, including $15,000 to the Democratic Party of N.C.

Chaney, Carter and Lopez-Carter have received a combined total of $1,200 from the Orange County Republican party, and Lopez-Carter accepted an additional $250 from the North Carolina Republican Party.

CHCCS Faces $900k Budget Gap And Loss of 22 TAs

With the new state spending plan in place, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are facing a nearly one million dollar budget gap.

The $911,000 shortfall means the school board will consider a plan to cut four and a half gifted education specialist positions at the elementary level and transfer some custodial staff to contract work.

Because of state budget cuts, the district could lose 22 teaching assistants. Legislators shifted the $800,000 that would have paid those assistants to fund classroom teaching positions in an effort to lower class size.

While school systems have some ability to shift that money back to TAs, Chapel Hill-Carrboro administrators say the state has put limitations on the exchange that don’t make it feasible for the district. School officials plan to reallocate teaching assistants in grades 4 and 5 and hire more teachers instead.

While the state budget provides more money for most teachers, veteran educators and other school employees are not likely to see much of pay raise. In response, CHCCS administrators are asking for $2.5 million to make sure all public school employees get at least a three percent raise.

This newest version of the local budget was released on Tuesday and no final decisions have yet been made.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board will meet at 7 o’clock at the Lincoln Center on Thursday to vote on the 2014-2015 budget proposal. You can read the full agenda here.

Local Teachers Lukewarm On New Pay Plan

With the start of the school year looming, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Human Resources department is racing to fill teaching positions. Local administrators had been forced to put some hiring decisions on hold over the summer while state lawmakers haggled over a new spending plan.

Though the recently approved budget agreement provides more certainty, Teacher Recruitment Coordinator Mary Gunderson says there’s still a sense of unease among educators.

“The big piece that I see that’s different than in years past is just this sense of worry about the future of teaching in North Carolina, worry over how competitive North Carolina will be with other states,” says Gunderson.

The district has hired more than 130 teachers in the past two weeks, and while that number is about average for the district, she says she’s seen more teachers declining job offers than before, and some of those who have already accepted job offers have changed their minds.

“We have had more than usual in terms of candidates declining offers, and I think that’s symptomatic of what’s happening at the state level with dissatisfaction with what’s happening with teaching salaries,” says Gunderson. “To date, I’ve had 23 candidates decline offers, and then, unfortunately, I’ve had another 12 candidates accept an offer and then a few weeks or even a few months later change their minds and take another offer.”

Gunderson says this makes it particularly hard to hire teachers in high-need areas like math, science and exceptional education.

“In some of the high needs area, as we move farther into the calendar, those pools have much smaller numbers of teaching candidates who are available for positions, so as we move later into the summer, fewer and fewer of those candidates are available and seeking positions.”

Gunderson says many of those seeking employment elsewhere are looking at other school systems, private schools, charter schools, or new professions altogether.

North Carolina’s low teacher pay has been a political hot button in recent weeks, as the exact percentage of proposed pay raises was one of the major sticking points between lawmakers trying to reconcile the House and Senate budget plans.

Ultimately, the General Assembly settled on a new pay scale for teachers that offers an average seven percent raise. However the actual amount varies widely depending on experience. New teachers will see a seven percent increase, and those with five years experience will see as much as 18 percent. But veteran teachers could see as little as one percent. Some say the plan to cap salaries at $50,000 and do away with longevity bonuses shows a lack of respect for those with decades of classroom experience.

“I just spoke with a candidate this morning who has 28 years experience and she says ‘You know, it’s just sad for someone in my position that my experience is not valued in the current state salary system,’ and that’s really a true statement,” says Gunderson. “When the pay scale raises are dramatically different -this year the range is huge, all the way from one percent to 18 percent- it really is hard to separate that from a sense of value when you’re one of the people who just gets the one percent raise.”

Some hiring decisions are still up in the air as the final local school budget has yet to be approved. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools board meets next week to hash out the details. Board members are expected to pass a budget on Thursday.

NCGA Approves New Teacher Pay Plan

After weeks of wrangling, the state House and Senate each voted last week to approve a $21 billion dollar budget that includes an average seven percent pay raise for public school teachers.

Though leaders in the Republican-controlled General Assembly called the new budget “historic” for putting $282 million towards education, some educators themselves have criticized the new teacher pay plan.

That’s because longevity pay, the bonus once awarded to teachers with more than 10 of experience is no longer guaranteed. Instead, the new plan caps teacher salaries at $50,000 for those with more than 25 years in the classroom and rolls longevity pay into the base salaries.

This has some long-term teachers estimating their raises at closer to two to four percent, while starting teachers will receive a 7 percent boost and those with half a decade of experience could see as much as an 18 percent increase.

Governor Pat McCrory has indicated he will approve the new spending plan. Though the General Assembly has signed off on the budget agreement, lawmakers can’t agree on a plan to draw the session to a close. The House and Senate are split on whether to take up the issues of Medicaid reform and coal ash clean up, or hold off until after the November election.

OC Commissioner Blasts Proposed NCGA Measure on County Taxes

Originally posted 2:22 a.m., July 19, 2014

The North Carolina Senate appears to be serious about a measure that would prohibit counties from calling sales tax referenda for use toward both transportation and education.

Under the proposed bill, counties would have to choose between the two.

“What the General Assembly is discussing is pitting education against transportation,” said Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich. “The problem with that is that transportation is always going to be the loser, because we value education so much in our county.”

On Wednesday, a State Senate Panel approved a bill by voice vote that could prevent Wake County in joining Orange and Durham Counties in using sales taxes to fund public transit.

The proposed measure would allow counties to raise taxes by referendum on a sales tax for either education or transportation, but not both.

The Durham Herald-Sun reported that Republican Sen. Rick Gunn of Alamance said that it would force counties to make a “clear decision on priorities.”

The bill would also cap local sales taxes at 2.5 percent.

Voters in Orange and Durham Counties have elected to raise taxes for both education and transit, and both currently have a 2.75 percent sales taxes in place. They would be exempt from the bill.

But Rich sees trouble ahead when it comes to forming transportation partnerships between counties in the future.

“Wake County has been discussing a transportation tax, and they are part of a group that is Wake, Durham and Chapel Hill to supply public transportation to our groups, and to get people moving, either with light rail or buses,” said Rich.

She also said that the ramifications for Orange County and all North Carolina counties go far beyond immediate consequences. She called the Senate bill another “divide-and-conquer” tactic

“There are big ramifications, because when the General Assembly is taking away the governing power of the county as they’re doing in this bill – and they do it in the first bill, and it gets by – then there’s no telling what they do down the road.

“So even though we say that we don’t have ramifications because we have our sales tax in place, it really is a grab,” she said. “It’s a grab for power.”

The late-session bill was supposed to go to the full Senate for a vote on Thursday, but was delayed until Monday.