Redistricting Continues to Stir Legal Battle in NC

Drawing the congressional map in North Carolina has been a topic of debate, in conversation and in courtrooms, for decades.

The latest rendition of the North Carolina congressional district map is constitutional, according to a State Supreme Court ruling. State Republican lawmakers are responsible for the latest depiction of the districts; the GOP drew the map in 2011, after the last census in 2010. The legal challenge to the map’s constitutionality may not be done, as an appeal to the US Supreme Court is likely. There have been 27 judicial interventions in North Carolina’s drawing of congressional districts in the last 30 years, according to the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

Listen to the full segment here:

Jane Pinsky is the director of that organization; she says the challenge to the previous district drawing was followed by a particularly long legal battle, “The 2001 redistricting finished with a lawsuit that was decided in 2009.”

Pinsky says partisan drawings have been the standard in the Tar Heel state. And drawing the map for political gain is technically legal, according to court rulings.

Kareem Crayton is an Associate Professor of Law at UNC; he says that the close ties between race and politics in North Carolina lead to a challenge that most states do not face.

“Is there a way to tease apart this purported concern with race and perhaps hyper-partisanship,” he asks, “in a way that makes a lot of sense to people and, frankly, keeps both the Democrats and Republicans at bay?”

One suggestion has been to look to other states as a model, one in particular being Iowa. Pinsky says their formula is developed by a professional staff and then voted on by legislators.

Professor Crayton adds that many states are looking at Iowa’s model, but there are some inherent issues.

“Iowa, by comparison, is not as ethnically and racially diverse as most other states in the union,” he says. “Certainly among states in the South, where there is a significant African-American population in the state electorate.”

Some states have taken pieces of the Iowa formula and molded it to fit their state’s needs. Ohio has created a new system for drawing their districts, which involves an independent commission drawing the map.

Pinsky says to get to a point where North Carolina deviates from the current formula of the dominant party having ultimate power over the drawings – and the seemingly endless legal battles associated with that –legislators will have to give up their power for drawing the congressional map.

She adds that state house lawmakers have agreed to a plan to move toward a new system on multiple occasions, but senate legislators have refused to move on the plan while litigation is ongoing.

Professor Crayton says that some other states have been successful in taking the power of drawing the map out of the legislator’s hand and allowing the citizens to decide on the congressional districts through a voter referendum.

“When the public gets mad enough and organized enough,” he says, “there usually is an effort to think creatively about a system that can stand any alternative.”

The possibility exists that the lawsuit over North Carolina’s congressional map could be combined with a similar suit out of Alabama and be brought before the US Supreme Court.

Regardless of any legal decision, the next time the lines will be put on a map of the Tar Heel state will be in 2021.

Whether that drawing will remain under our current system or if it will be subject to new – possibly less partisan – guidelines, remains to be seen.

CHCCS Board Votes To Expand Mandarin Program

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board voted 6-1 Thursday to expand the Mandarin dual language program at Glenwood Elementary and keep access to the program open to all students in the district via a lottery system.

Board Vice-Chair Mia Burroughs said the value of dual language education extends beyond the local community.

“I consider it a gift to the country, frankly, to have bilingual and multilingual children, particularly in Mandarin,” said Burroughs.

The vote means 76 families at Glenwood will need to be redistricted to alleviate overcrowding due to growth in the dual language program and increased enrollment in the school’s attendance zone.

More than 100 parents turned out Thursday night to ask the school board to put to rest the recent uncertainty about the future of the Mandarin program, but parents differed widely on what they saw as the best solution.

Those with students in the program touted the merit of dual language education. Pam Caswell told the school board the program has changed the way her son approaches learning.

“There is a rumor that it serves only the 156 most high-achieving students, and I am here to tell you different,” said Caswell. “My son did not enter Glenwood above average. He has become high-achieving because of the daily effort we put into his studies.”

But parents outside the program argued it costs too much and serves too few. Heather Kunmick labeled it an unnecessary expense in a tight budget year.

“When I’m sending in hundreds and hundreds of dollars of supplies because in October teachers are out of copy paper and my daughter’s art class doesn’t have enough pencils or erasers and my child’s kindergarten class doesn’t have glue sticks, how can we continue to pour money into something that serves such a small percentage of the population?” asked Kunmick.

School board members cautioned against singling out any one program for cuts, and reiterated their support for expanding Mandarin dual language instruction, saying expansion of the program will lower per-pupil expenses.

“The reason we expanded it is not only do we think this a really important program, it’s to bring the cost down,” said Burroughs. “We need to make the program load-bearing, to fill those classrooms so there aren’t extra-small classrooms in fourth and fifth grade.”

But the board wrestled with how and where the program should grow. In the long term, the district could open a new dual language magnet that would house the Mandarin program, but for now, any expansion of the program means non-dual language learners will need to be redistricted to make room for new Mandarin students.

Board members also struggled with the purpose of the program, noting that it’s evolved from instruction to help those with limited English to more of an immersion program for English-speaking students. Annetta Streater said it’s not fulfilling its original purpose.

“I am very much disappointed that what was meant to be a support for students who are not native English speakers is no longer that,” said Streater. “So that brings up another concern- are we doing what we’re supposed to be doing to support students who actually do need consistent instruction and intervention to acquire English?”

The board voted 6-1 to redistrict 76 non-dual language families and add a second first grade classroom to the Mandarin program, which will remain at Glenwood for at least the next year.

Though spot-redistricting offers a short-term solution to temporarily ease Glenwood’s overcrowding, there’s no clear consensus on what to do with the Mandarin program in the future. Board members agreed to hire a consultant to examine the long-term options, with an eye toward implementing a solution by 2015.

CHCCS Parents Pan New Dual Language Magnet Plan

CHAPEL HILL-The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board on Thursday backed away from a proposal to covert an existing elementary to a new dual language magnet in time for the start of the 2014 school year.

“I am not interested in doing something super major by 2014. I think our communities will not support that and I can’t support that,” said Board Chair Shell Brownstein.

More than 100 parents turned out to protest both the plan and the timing, as many said they learned of the proposal only four days prior to Thursday’s school board meeting.

The majority of the 40 speakers pleaded with the school board to reconsider separating the traditional and Spanish dual language students at Carrboro Elementary.

“That’s what this program is supposed to do, integrating our community. It is working,” said Charlie Wiss, father of two at the school. “Why would you want to dismantle that? I really don’t know.”

Although no school was named as a potential site for a new magnet school, Carrboro parents fear the plan to combine Mandarin and Spanish dual language classrooms together at one magnet school would pull apart Carrboro Elementary, where currently half the students are enrolled in the Spanish dual language program.

Many parents expressed frustration that school officials would consider such a sweeping change less than a year after both wide-spread redistricting and the conversion of Frank Porter Graham into the district’s first magnet.

Carrboro Alderman Jacqueline Gist said she’s so strongly opposed to the plan that she was moved to address the school board in public for the first time in her twenty-four years as an elected official.

“On behalf of our community, for economic development reasons, for the good of our children and for the walkability of our community, please do not take our children away from our school,” said Gist.

Alderman Sammy Slade also addressed the school board, alternating between English and Spanish. Both Aldermen said Carrboro leaders would likely vote next week to formally oppose the plan.

This latest dual language debate was sparked by the need to address overcrowding at Glenwood Elementary, home of the district’s Mandarin Chinese dual language program.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said increased enrollment in the Mandarin program combined with growth in the school’s attendance zone put the district’s smallest school nearly 100 students over capacity this year, with that number expected to rise in coming years.

***Listen to LoFrese’s presentation***

CHCCS Mandarin Dual Language Presentation

And while spot-redistricting for Glenwood may be a short-term solution, LoFrese said the school board needs to develop a comprehensive, long-range plan for the future of the Mandarin program.

“A plan for Mandarin dual language is needed really before proceeding with the movement of any students,” said LoFrese.

He suggested that slowing the expansion of the program might be the best choice for the district at this time.

“I kind of feel like we may have had horse blinders on as we’ve tried to get the Mandarin expansion to fit,” said LoFrese. “And so I question whether the lens needs to be broader and consider whether we really should be trying to develop solutions to facilitate an expansion at this time, at the expense of disruption to the district.”

Some school board members were hesitant to embrace the idea of a slow-down, having voted in 2012 to expand the program and more recently to add an additional dual language classroom at Glenwood.

Board member James Barrett explained the latest expansion: “There was a unique opportunity to add a single class because of a wonderful teacher who could teach both [languages]. That was a unique opportunity. We took advantage of it and started this class earlier than we had originally planned to.”

Though no vote was taken, the majority of the board indicated a preference for spot-redistricting to temporarily relieve overcrowding at Glenwood while officials explore other options and look to create a broader plan for the dual language program.

Superintendent Tom Forcella said that ultimately, changes to the dual language program could impact the district as a whole.

“I understand the concern from the people from Carrboro, but you have to understand that, as this conversation evolves, it is not just including Carrboro, it’s Seawell, it’s Rashkis, it’s FPG and it’s Northside as we get deeper into the weeds of what the ramifications could be,” said Forcella.

Currently, the school board has no timeline for a decision on spot-redistricting, the magnet plan, or other proposals. Administrators will return with recommendations for the board in the near future.

For Northside And FPG, New School Year Marks Dawn Of New Era

Northside Elementary School principal Cheryl Carnahan shows off the new building.

CHAPEL HILL – Students in Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools head back to school on Monday morning–and for two elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district, the first day of the new year also marks the first day of a new era.

Frank Porter Graham Elementary School reopens Monday as a dual-language magnet school, the first in the district. “We’re delighted to be the district’s first magnet school,” says principal Emily Bivins, “and (we’re) looking forward to the opportunities in using bilingual education to close the achievement gap, particularly for students who historically have not been successful in our schools.”

FPG Principal Emily Bivins (in Northside library)

FPG Principal Bivins speaks at a press conference Thursday at the new Northside Elementary School.

More than 500 kids are enrolled at FPG, about half of which are new students in the district’s Spanish dual-language program.

Meanwhile across town, the new Northside Elementary School is finally open for business after years in the making–with 496 students enrolled and 80 employees on staff–and school officials like principal Cheryl Carnahan (formerly of Estes Hills Elementary) say they couldn’t be more excited.

Carnahan says Northside’s mission statement is “Thinking, learning, and growing, with purpose, persistence, and pride.” Purpose, persistence, and pride are joined by a pedagogical approach that’s eminently forward-thinking, while still nodding back to the past.

Northside principal Cheryl Carnahan 1

Carnahan speaks at Thursday’s press conference. (The sunbeam is intentional: Northside is designed to maximize natural light.)

A tour of Northside Elementary is striking: every facet of the new building is consciously tailored to be both eco-friendly and high-tech, from the placement of the windows to the design of the students’ chairs. Reflectors and skylights throughout the building maximize natural light to save on electricity; that electricity is channeled instead into a wide variety of state-of-the-art technology–including iPads (one for every two students), high-speed wireless Internet, and interactive whiteboards that also function as massive touch screens. (Chalk on a slate is ancient history.) Students sit on chairs designed to allow for wiggle room (they’re even comfortable for adults), and the teachers wear microphones to ensure sound quality.

Northside Elementary School classroom

Moseley Architects construction administrator Steve Nally (L) points out some key features in a Northside classroom.

“It’s a different way of thinking about technology,” says Carnahan. “Our focus is always on what (we can) do to collaborate, communicate, and create with our technology.”

But even as Northside looks to the future, it’s also making a concerted effort to stay rooted in its historic past. Its location at 350 Caldwell Street is also the site of the original Northside Elementary, which served as Chapel Hill’s elementary school for African-Americans prior to integration. That history is preserved on the first floor of the three-story building, with a commemorative wall, a trophy case, and a gallery of decades-old photos–a veritable museum of the Northside community’s educational history.

Northside Elementary history wall

The history wall, downstairs.

That history will make its way into the classrooms as well: Northside’s approach revolves around student-driven, “project-based” learning, and Carnahan says the first schoolwide project will focus on Northside.

“(The project) will be about 12 weeks and will start in October…building community and looking at the history of our school site,” she says. “The essential question is, how can we as historians document what has happened in the past, and use that for the present and project to the future?”

And since the school is seeking to look in two directions at once, it’s only fitting that Northside’s symbol is the compass–there are dozens of them on the walls, floors, even the clocks–and the team name is the Navigators.

Neither Northside nor FPG are opening without controversy, of course. In 2012, parents at FPG protested strongly against the school board’s decision to convert the school to a dual-language magnet—and earlier this year, parents across the district spoke out against the new redistricting plan, which moved a large number of students out of their previous schools to ease overcrowding and make way for Northside.

And as students across Chapel Hill-Carrboro return to class, school officials behind the scenes are still contending with another round of budget cuts at the state level–not to mention the threat of an even more difficult financial strain next year, when the district’s fund balance is projected to run dry.

Still, Monday is a day of pride and optimism for local schools–Northside, FPG, and everywhere–as thousands of Orange County students return to what remain two of the top-rated districts in North Carolina.

“It is going to be a great school year in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools,” says district spokesperson Jeff Nash. “It was a great year last year, and we have every reason to believe that despite anything you might see coming outside the Beltline, this (too) is going to be a great school year.”

Northside Elementary rooftop garden

Northside Elementary’s rooftop garden. (Yes, it has a rooftop garden.)

Northside Elementary cafeteria

Skylights abound in Northside’s cafeteria.

Northside Elementary Playground

One of Northside’s three playgrounds. (They’re divided by grade level.)

Northside Elementary Playground artificial grass

A closer look at the playground: that’s actually artificial grass down there.

Northside Elementary auditorium gym

Not far from the history wall, Northside’s gym/auditorium–complete with elevated stage–nears completion.

Northside Elementary School plaque

(No school is perfect.)

Northside Elementary exterior

The exterior of Northside Elementary School. (Note the light reflectors installed in each of the windows.)