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.

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/tax-bill/

NCGA Budget Impasse Leaves Local TA’s In Limbo

As state lawmakers wrangle over a budget agreement, nearly 100 teaching assistants in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system are in limbo, waiting to find out if they’ll still have jobs when school starts.

Arasi Adkins is the Human Resources Director for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. She says 79 local teaching assistant positions will remain unfilled until state budget negotiations are complete.

“Their livelihood is hanging in the balance,” says Adkins. “They’re waiting to be re-hired. We’re kind of holding on, so this is extremely difficult for them [and] it’s extremely difficult for us in terms of staffing. It’s been a very challenging summer.”

Last year, in response to state budget cuts, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools hired new teaching assistants on one year contracts that the district paid for using reserve funds. Now, school officials say the district has run out of reserve funds to cover the shortfall, and they’re waiting to see what, if anything, the state will do to help pay for teaching assistants.

“Because there’s such a huge variance in the House version of the budget and the Senate version of the budget, it really is difficult to do anything other that wait,” says Adkins.

Negotiations between the state House and Senate are stalled as legislators debate competing spending plans. The House version calls for a five or six percent raise for teachers while the Senate wants to push that up to 11 percent, but pay for those raises by cutting teaching assistants.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board is waiting until July 17 to adopt its local budget for next year. In anticipation of further cuts to state funding the board has identified two levels of potential budget cuts.

The first tier would bring the budget in line with the House plan. It would require $850,000 worth of cuts, including the loss of 4.5 gifted education specialist positions.

Depending on the final budget, a second round of cuts could be necessary. That would mean eliminating the district’s service learning coordinator, cutting media assistants to part-time, losing three and a half more gifted education positions, and shifting some custodial staff to lower-paid contract work.

But some worry that a third round of cuts might be needed if something similar to the Senate budget is passed. If that happens, school officials acknowledge teaching assistant positions will be on the chopping block.

“We have identified two different tiers worth of cuts that don’t involve teaching assistant reductions at all, so that’s what we’re really hoping for. Beyond that we really haven’t discussed the number of teaching assistant positions that would be cut if we have to go to that,” says Adkins

State lawmakers on Friday canceled a planned negotiation session, prompting speculation that the General Assembly could walk away without a new spending plan. The state is currently operating on a two-year budget passed in 2013, so the lack of a deal wouldn’t cause a government shutdown, but Adkins says the uncertainty affects what the district can offer to entice new hires.

Most disheartening, she says, is the recent discussion in the Senate questioning the benefits of teaching assistants in the classroom.

“I mean, it’s July. If they wanted to bring up research about the value of teaching assistants, I really believe they should have spent more time last year visiting classrooms, talking to teachers, talking to their constituents about the value of teaching assistants,” says Adkins.”I’d really argue that anybody who questions the value of a teacher assistant should be required to do substitute teaching in an elementary classroom.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board meets on Thursday to discuss the budget, but whether or not the board will have a budget to approve remains to be seen. In the meantime, many local teaching assistants have no choice but to wait and see.

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/ncga-budget-impasse-leaves-local-tas-limbo/

Local Schools In Limbo Awaiting State Budget

Depending of which version of the state budget wins favor in the General Assembly in the coming days, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools could be facing between $850,000 and $3 million dollars worth of budget cuts.

The school board held a special meeting on Tuesday to review options for dealing with those cuts. Elected leaders said the focus should be protecting the student experience in the classroom.

“Right now we’re trying to preserve the core education for our kids,” said board member Michelle Brownstein.

All agreed the House plan, which maintains funding for teaching assistants and includes a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, is the best case scenario. Still, it would require $850,000 worth of local budget cuts, including the loss of 4.5 gifted education specialist positions.

A second round of cuts could be necessary if the General Assembly adopts a budget similar to the Senate’s spending plan.

That could include eliminating the district’s service learning coordinator, cutting media assistants to part-time, losing three and a half more gifted education positions, and shifting some custodial staff to lower-paid contract work.

While all that would trim nearly $1 million dollars, officials acknowledge that’s not enough to account for the shortfall in the Senate’s budget proposal, which calls for an 11 percent pay raise while slashing funding for teaching assistants.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese told the board hiring for 80 teaching assistant positions is on hold until the state’s final budget is approved.

“We’ve been preparing for this for over a year, and so the teaching assistants that were hired all throughout last year were placed on interim contracts, and while we’d like to hire them back, we’re not going to do so until we have clarity,” said LoFrese.

School board officials hope to sign off on the budget July 17, but they say another emergency meeting could be needed if the legislature unveils any last minute surprises.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-schools-limbo-awaiting-state-budget/

NC GOP Unpopular – But Are They In Danger?

Pat McCrory is unpopular and the North Carolina General Assembly is extremely unpopular – but it doesn’t look like there will be much of a shakeup in Raleigh when North Carolinians go to vote this November.

That’s the upshot of the latest survey from Public Policy Polling, released last week.

Read the report here.

Governor McCrory’s approval rating is only 39 percent and his disapproval rating is 45 percent – marking the 12th month in a row that McCrory has been in negative territory. PPP director Tom Jensen says that may be because voters see McCrory as a weak governor: only 27 percent believe he’s calling the shots in Raleigh, while 43 percent think the General Assembly is in control. (And voters don’t see that as a good thing: only 18 percent of North Carolinians approve of the job the NCGA is doing.)

But voters disapprove of Democrats in the NCGA as much as they disapprove of Republicans – so even though the NCGA is in Republican hands, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of support for Democrats yet. Republicans actually lead a generic legislative ballot 43-41, which Jensen says would give the GOP essentially the same majority for the next two years that it enjoys today. (That’s in spite of the fact that most of the policies being passed in the House and Senate are themselves unpopular as well.)

Tom Jensen joined Aaron Keck on the Tuesday afternoon news to discuss the poll.

As for the 2016 election, Jensen says to expect some close races: McCrory currently holds a 44-42 lead over attorney general Roy Cooper, the presumptive Democratic challenger (owing partly to Cooper’s low name recognition, Jensen says), while Hillary Clinton leads the most likely Republican candidates in the presidential race by equally narrow margins.

http://chapelboro.com/news/election/nc-gop-unpopular-danger/

Local Electeds React To State Senate Budget

The North Carolina General Assembly is meeting in “short session” this year – but there’s been no shortness of controversy.

At the center of debate last week was the budget proposal released by State Senate Republicans, which includes more than $400 million for a significant hike in teacher salaries – but that raise comes (among other things) at the expense of massive cuts to teacher assistants in grades 2 and 3.

Already facing a multi-million-dollar shortfall, officials at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools say the Senate’s proposal would likely force the district to make even more cuts than they were initially planning – unless they can persuade County Commissioners to dig even deeper into the pool of local money. (Fully funding the budget requests of both the county’s districts would almost certainly necessitate a tax increase, though, which County Commissioners and county staff have been reluctant to impose.)

Meanwhile – though it hasn’t received as much media attention – local municipalities across the state are also contending with the repeal of a business privilege tax, which the AP reports could cost municipalities a total of $62 million statewide. Governor Pat McCrory signed the repeal on Thursday.

With those and other issues in mind, WCHL’s Aaron Keck invited Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board member James Barrett to the studio on Thursday, for a pair of conversations about the local impact of recent actions at the NCGA.

Mark Kleinschmidt:

James Barrett:

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/local-electeds-react-state-senate-budget/

Three NCGA Legislators From Orange Give a Preview of the Short Session

The short session of the North Carolina General Assembly begins Wednesday.

Three state legislators from Orange County, all Democrats, spoke recently with WCHL about their expectations for this session.

“There is absolutely no evidence that the tax cut has stimulated the economy in any way,” says Rep. Verla Insko of District 56. “And we are still about 60,000 jobs short of the people that were employed in 2007, or 2008.”

She says the Republican majority in Raleigh has been “reckless” with budgeting policies over the past three years – in particular, with tax cuts that brought down revenue.

Insko says the recent news of a $445 million shortfall should not have surprised Republican legislators. And she’s not a fan of dipping into $6 million in reserves, as a solution.

“It’s one-time money,” says Insko. “And Democrats did use one-time money to fill holes. So it’s not that it’s never been done. But we didn’t try to fund significant recurring expense with that money.”

Insko and her fellow Orange County legislators – District 50 Rep, Graig Meyer, and District 23 Senator Valerie Foushee – all agree that tweaking the budget will be the top priority.

And within that task, the top issue is raising teacher pay.

“We do need and across-the board pay raise for teachers,” says Meyer, “and I’m glad that the governor recognizes that. But along with the small raise that he proposed for this year, we need a serious plan for how we’re going to boost the pay of our teachers up to the national average or above.

“And the governor’s plan doesn’t do that. The base salary scale on his plan tops out at $50,000. And the nationwide average for teacher pay is $55,000.”

Like Insko and Foushee, he’s worried about where the money will come from.

“If the legislature decides to cut the university system significantly in order to give teachers a raise, I don’t see that as good legislation, and I’m not sure I could vote for that.”

Another top item on the to-do list mentioned by all three legislators is enforcing the cleanup of all of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, in addition to the one that spilled into the Dan River back in February.

“When people look at what’s happening now, they expect the state to ensure that Duke Energy does indeed clean up those ponds,” says Foushee,” and that there’s a plan in place that ensures that this sort of thing won’t happen again; and that rate payers are not going to ones that pay for the cleanup.”

Foushee told WCHL that she has one reason to feel optimistic about this legislative session.

“What I’m hearing is that we’re not going to be there very long,” says Foushee. “And that would suggest to me that there won’t be a lot of controversial legislation proposed or passed.

“I think that, right now, that is probably the best that we can expect.”

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/three-ncga-legislators-orange-give-preview-short-session/

Local Candidates Gear Up For 2014 Election

HILLSBOROUGH- Even before the start of the filing period, more than a dozen local candidates have declared their intent to run for office in 2014.

Long-time Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon announced she won’t be seeking re-election, prompting Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board Vice-Chair Mia Burroughs to seek the seat representing District 1.

Bingham resident Mark Marcoplos says he’ll challenge incumbent Earl McKee for the District 2 seat representing rural Orange County, and Bonnie Hauser will take on Board Chair Barry Jacobs for the at-large seat.

For the first time in three decades, there’s no incumbent running for Orange County Sheriff. Lindy Pendergrass announced he’ll be retiring after more than thirty years as the county’s top lawman. Already several challengers have put their names forward, including Charles Blackwood, Andy Cagle, Larry Faucette and David Caldwell.

The Orange County School board has four seats up for grabs- that race will be determined in the May primary.

At the same time, the Town of Carrboro will hold a special election to fill the board seat Lydia Lavelle left vacant when she was elected mayor last fall. To date, planning board chair Bethany Chaney is the only candidate to come forward, but others are likely to run.

At the state level, newly-seated House District 50 Representative Graig Meyer will stand for office for the first time, and State Senator Valerie Foushee will be running to keep the seat she was appointed to when Ellie Kinnaird stepped down. House District 56 Representative Verla Insko will be seeking her tenth term.

Last but not least, Superior Court Judges Carl Fox and Allen Baddour are up for re-election, as is District Court Judge Joe Buckner and District Attorney Jim Woodall.

The filing period opens at noon on Monday and  runs through the end of the month. The primary election is May 6, the general election is November 4.

http://chapelboro.com/news/election/local-candidates-gear-2014-election/

Push For Teacher Raises Takes Hold In NC

STATEWIDE – With teachers in North Carolina among the lowest paid in the nation, a grassroots effort is taking shape to persuade state legislators to raise teacher salaries.

“If (teachers) can go elsewhere and get higher pay, better benefits, and a feeling of better respect for the profession, they’re going to do that,” says UNC-Greensboro education professor Wayne Journell. He’s one of many North Carolinians who, just in the last two weeks, have begun to raise their voices publicly in support of higher teacher pay.

That issue, of course, has been a controversial one for months. Last year, as North Carolina dropped to 46th in the nation in teacher salaries, the General Assembly voted to cut salary bonuses for teachers who earned master’s degrees—while simultaneously reducing funding for teaching assistants and eliminating teacher tenure.

Critics argued then that those moves would drive good teachers out of the state. In fact Chapel Hill-Carrboro assistant superintendent Todd LoFrese said in August that the process had already begun.

“We lost a great math teacher to Kentucky,” LoFrese said then. “That teacher’s making $10,000 more in Kentucky than they would have made here on the North Carolina salary schedule.”

And it wasn’t only the established teachers who were leaving. At UNC-G, Journell says his students were beginning to look elsewhere too.

“And they said, ‘Why–given what’s going on in the state–why should I consider staying in North Carolina to teach?’” Journell says. “And honestly, I couldn’t give them a good answer.”

Journell says that’s why he picked up his pen—and wrote an open letter to Governor Pat McCrory last week urging him to take action to raise teacher pay.

Read Journell’s letter here, via NCPolicyWatch.com.

And Journell wasn’t the only one.

On January 4, former Governor Jim Hunt wrote an editorial in the News and Observer challenging the General Assembly to raise teacher pay in North Carolina to the national average. Hunt says he himself led the charge to do just that during his tenure as governor—with bipartisan support. And while the effort was costly—$240 million per year—Hunt says it also paid off: between 1999 and 2001, as teacher salaries were increasing by 7.5 percent per year, he says student test scores were also rising faster than in any other state.

The General Assembly won’t be back in session for months, but Hunt’s editorial reshaped the debate, at least for now. Last week, an organization called Aim Higher NC launched an online petition to urge the GA to raise teacher salaries—and got more than 10,000 signatures in the first 36 hours. A survey from Public Policy Polling indicated that 79 percent of North Carolinians—including 66 percent of Republicans—favored Hunt’s proposal to raise teacher salaries to the national average. Governor McCrory too says he’s committed to raising teacher pay in 2014, though specific details still have to be ironed out.

And in Greensboro, Journell says his open letter got a big response.

“The next day when I opened up my email, I had a bunch of emails to go through,” he says. “I was kind of concerned that some of them would be saying, ‘oh, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’ but all the emails I got were very, very positive.” (No response yet from Governor McCrory though, he says.)

It remains to be seen, of course, whether state legislators will ride the wave. Former Governor Hunt admits that any significant teacher pay raise will be costly—and while there’s bipartisan support for higher teacher salaries, Republicans in particular also remain opposed to any tax hikes.

But Journell says he’s hopeful that the current movement will have an impact in the end—and not just for the benefit of his students.

“You know, I have a kid,” he says. “She just turned one. She’s going to be educated in this state. And I want young, energetic teachers to be in North Carolina…

“I just don’t want us to drive them away.”

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/push-teacher-raises-takes-hold-nc/

Chatham Dems Name Date For House 54 Appointment

PITTSBORO-Democrats from Chatham and Lee Counties have set a date to name a replacement to fill Deb McManus’s empty seat in the General Assembly.

The appointment committee will hold an information session for candidates and the public on January 11 from 10 a.m. until noon at the Historic Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro.

The formal vote to name a new representative for State House District 54 will take place at the courthouse on January 24 at 5:30 p.m.

Six candidates have already put their names in for consideration: Cedric Blade, James Steven Heymen, Jeffrey Starkweather, Robert Reives II, Kathie Russell and  Tim Weiner.

McManus was serving her first term in the legislature when she resigned last month after being arrested on felony tax charges. She’s charged with embezzlement for allegedly withholding more than $47,000 in state individual income tax while working as the bookkeeper at her husband’s medical office.

The appointment committee is still accepting applications from candidates. You can find out more about the timeline and the process here.

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/chatham-dems-name-date-house-54-appointment/

Court Will Wait Until 2015 To Weigh Challenges to NC Voting Laws

CHAPEL HILL – A federal judge ruled the court will not hear a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s controversial voting bill before 2015.

Former state senator Ellie Kinnaird says the decision to postpone the trial is problematic because many voters could find themselves disenfranchised next year.

“It’s a very great disappointment because the voting law so limits the access to the ballot and many populations are going to be adversely affected,” says Kinnaird.

However, there is a chance the plaintiffs will file an injunction that could suspend the new rules until after the 2014 election.

“They’re going to ask the judge to say while the suit is pending, please stop those from going into effect,” says Kinniard. “Don’t allow all those changes to go into effect.”

Currently, Governor Pat McCrory and the State Board of Elections are facing lawsuits from the U.S. Justice Department, the NAACP, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and others regarding the provisions of Republican-backed legislation that dramatically changes North Carolina’s voting rules.

Under the bill passed last session, early voting is cut by a week, same-day registration is banned, and all voters will be required to present photo ID by 2016. Opponents say the new rules target students, minority voters and the elderly, all of whom are more likely to support Democrats.

This past August Kinnaird stepped down from the state senate seat she held for nearly 20 years so that she could focus on voter outreach in the wake of the bill’s passage. She says the full impact of the voting law changes has yet to be seen.

“There are many, many changes that are going to affect different population groups,” says Kinnaird. “Overall, it will suppress the vote and we’re very concerned.”

The numerous challenges to the voting law will likely be consolidated into one case, to be heard in U.S. District court in July of 2015.

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/court-will-wait-2015-weigh-challenges-nc-voting-laws/