Redistricting Reform: State…And Local

Last week – following the most recent craziness in the General Assembly – I posted a long piece on Chapelboro calling for redistricting reform at the state level.

(Upshot: rather than letting state legislators draw our legislative district lines every 10 years, we should take the power out of their hands and give it to an independent, nonpartisan commission. State legislators have a personal and partisan interest in drawing the lines to favor themselves and their party – so let’s put the power in the hands of people who don’t have a personal interest, so they can focus on what’s best for North Carolinians as a whole.)

The state legislature hasn’t acted, naturally – doing so would require them to give up some of their own power, and that’s a hard thing for anyone to do – but there is definitely widespread support for redistricting reform across party lines. Democrats, Republicans, and independents all favor it by wide margins.

It’s something we ought to do.

But while we’re on the subject…

How about redistricting reform at the local level too?

We’ve got an election this year for four open seats on the Orange County Board of Commissioners…and if you don’t know, we’ve got a pretty complicated system for electing them.

Time was, all of the seats on the Board were at-large seats, meaning everyone in the county voted for every seat. (This is still how we do it for our town boards.)

But that was unfair to residents of northern Orange County: because most of Orange County’s population was concentrated in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, the entire board invariably wound up being comprised of Chapel Hill/Carrboro folks who represented Chapel Hill/Carrboro interests and weren’t as concerned with rural issues. Agriculture? Solid waste? Rural bus routes? Residents in northern Orange didn’t have much of a voice.

So last decade, the county changed its election system. Orange County divided itself into two districts, split along roughly the same line as the county’s two school districts: Chapel Hill and Carrboro in District 1, the rest of the county in District 2. Now we have seven county commissioners: two of them are still at-large, elected by everybody, but there are three commissioners who specifically represent District 1 and two who specifically represent District 2.

Sort of.

Thing is, the county didn’t go all the way when it split into districts. Residents of District 1 and 2 get to choose their own party nominees in the primary election – but in the November general election, it’s still all at-large. Everybody votes in all seven races, regardless of where in the county they live.

Why is this?

It’s better today than it was before: once upon a time the entire board was Chapel Hill/Carrboro, and today folks in northern Orange do have two spots on the board reserved for them. It’s a step in the right direction. (And this year it doesn’t really matter: since all the candidates are Democrats, all of this year’s races are going to be decided in the primary anyway.)

But should Orange County go all the way? Let District 1 and District 2 elect their own representatives in the primary and the general election? There’s something to be said for the at-large system – our elected officials really ought to be considering the needs and interests of everyone in the county, no matter what – but it’s undeniably true that certain issues affect northern and southern Orange County differently, and that will be the case no matter how we elect our representatives. Should both districts have their own independent say?

I spoke with Orange County conservative Ashley DeSena this week, and both of us agreed on the need for state and local reform. Listen to our conversation.

CHCCS Teachers Face Loss Of Tenure: “It’s An Insult”

CHAPEL HILL- Chapel Hill-Carrboro teachers, administrators and school board members aren’t happy about the loss of job protection rules for educators. Nonetheless, school officials are drafting a plan to comply with new state laws that end teacher tenure.

Chuck Hennessee, a Culbreth teacher and president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators, addressed the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board last week.

“You all know there are so many inherent things wrong with this law,” said Hennessee. “It’s built on the premise that only 25 percent of our teachers would deserve a contract, when we know that in this district, 94 percent of our teachers are proficient or above. It’s an insult to us as teachers.”

Starting next August, teachers with more than four years of experience can no longer be awarded career status, and those with career status will lose it by 2018. Instead, schools will offer most teachers one-year renewable contracts.

But school districts across the state are also tasked with identifying the top 25 percent of educators and offering them four-year contracts with annual raises of $500.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Human Resources Executive Director Arasi Adkins told the school board that unofficial polling among local teachers revealed little interest in the plan. So far, only 77 teachers have indicated they’d accept the four-year contract if offered.

Regardless of how many choose to sign the contracts, the district must make the offer to 200 teachers by next June.

School board member Annetta Streater called the plan “laughable.”

“So all we have to do is offer documentation to some authority that ‘here’s who we offered it to’ and half of them decline, then it’s done?” asked Streater. “What is the point of this?”

Although the contracts come with bonus money, the General Assembly has not allocated funding for those bonuses for future years. The board agreed that the district can’t afford to pick up the tab if state funding falls through.

“I feel strongly that we cannot promise to have this money, so it needs to be contingent on the state funding in the contract,” said Board Chair Jamezetta Bedford.

Administrators and school board members questioned the wisdom of the changes approved by the legislature as part of the budget bill this summer.

Adkins said the state requires the district to use a teacher evaluation tool to assess proficiency, but she and others stressed the evaluation is being misapplied.

“It’s a tool for teacher growth,” said Adkins. “It was never meant to compare teachers to each other.”

Teachers who fail to qualify as proficient are subject to dismissal. Supporters say the new rules will make it easier for school systems to dismiss under-performing teachers, but opponents worry it will drive more educators out-of-state or into other fields.

The North Carolina Association of Educators has already filed a lawsuit challenging the law. East Chapel Hill High School history teacher Brian Link is among the plaintiffs. He says the option of career status for teachers was one of the factors that drew him to move to North Carolina four years ago.

Teachers in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district have until March 1 to put their names in for consideration for a four-year contract. The signing deadline is June 30, 2014.

CHCCS Board To Vote On New Budget Plan

CHAPEL HILL-Members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board hope to adopt a new budget Thursday night, despite the fact that the General Assembly’s spending plan is still up in the air.

School officials are looking to trim the local budget in anticipation of state-level cuts that could cost the district up to $1.3 million dollars of funding for teaching assistants.

The school board spent much of its last meeting re-evaluating spending priorities to make sure enough local funding is set aside to cover the budget shortfall.

But administrators are backing away from a plan to cut the number of gifted education specialists at each elementary, recommending that the district forgo hiring new middle school literacy coaches instead.

The legislature is still working out the details of next year’s state budget. If the state cuts prove to be more than anticipated, school officials say they will have to make do with one less teaching assistant at each of the district’s eleven elementary schools.

The board meets Thursday July 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Lincoln Center on South Merritt Mill Road. Click here for the full agenda.

Change In State Legislature Has To Be Well-Informed

CHAPEL HILL – There’s no question where local citizens stand when it comes to opinions about the current North Carolina State Legislature.

“How is the General Assembly doing?” asks Executive Committee Member of the Orange-Chatham Sierra Club, Jason Baker. “Terribly. Depressingly. There’s a lot of really negative words (that) come to mind.”

“When I think of the Legislation, it’s just how weary so many people are,” says Durham Tech Community College Executive Dean, Penny Gluck.

Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison says there is a growing trend that’s at the heart of the matter.

“Senator Ellie Kinnaird summed it up as, ‘so many nowadays don’t want to be informed’,” Mayor Pro Tem Harrison says. “The result is that they are ignoring, in some cases, what they are doing to different constituencies.”

One of the areas with the most focus of late has been all levels of education. Bills have been proposed that override decisions made by the governing board of UNC, mandating fundamentals in elementary education, and affecting the formula in which teachers are measured for tenure.

But Baker says, while it is an area of concern for him, there’s so much more.

“Municipal sovereignty has been under attack,” Baker says. “The environment has been under attack; more recently we’ve all seen the voting rights of North Carolinians have been steeply under attack in ways that we’ve never seen before.”

A bill passed in the House on Wednesday (April 24) that could make it through the Senate with the Republican majority that would require voters to present one of nine forms of state-issued ID starting in 2016.

Chapel Hill High School science teacher, Loren Hintz says the General Assembly just doesn’t get it.

“One thing which is very concerning is the whole tone of the conversation of the State Legislature,” Hintz says. “It really does seem like they resent the public education program, that they don’t understand what the current career status law is. There’s a lot of misconceptions, editorials in the newspaper, or opinion pieces that have a lot of inaccurate information. It’s really unfortunate.”

So, what are the solutions? Hintz says it’s going to take more than just a vote.

“The reality is that votes are necessary and important, but for a change to actually occur, it really requires groups of people to come together and advocate,” Hintz says. “In some cases, it just might be volunteers doing it and then eventually get legislation to pass it. But, voting itself without people communicating on a regular basis, change doesn’t happen.”

Janice Tyler is the director of the Orange County Department on Aging. She says getting the demographic which she serves out to vote isn’t a problem. In fact, her focus isn’t as much on the state level as it is on the Federal Government and sequestration.

“Just right before I came over here, we were crunching numbers of how we’re going to deal with that,” Tyler says. “What that means for us here at the local level is going to mean less rides for transportation, it’s going to mean less meals being served.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum are the youth. While they have their parents to advocate for them, it’s important to make sure that the ones who can’t vote themselves are watched over.

Annetta Streater is a member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board. She says it’s not just about the regulations in schools, but also about the time away from the schools that allows the students to receive the important life lessons in order to be successful.

“One of the things people don’t know about this area is that there’s a wide economic gap amongst our community,” Streater says. “Its connection to education is very powerful when there is such a disparity between the haves and have-nots in our community. It is a big driver around the educational experiences that our children have.”

These comments and many more were made during the AfterRaleigh panel of the 2013 WCHL Chapel Hill – Carrboro – Orange County Community Forum. You can hear the ten-hour forum in its entirety by clicking here.

The Color Purple

Estimates of the total spent on the election we all just survived hover around $6 billion.  No, that “B” is not a typo.  

How many transit systems could be modernized with that money?  How many more cancer research studies could be funded?  Or, perhaps more on point for some, how much could the nation’s deficit have dropped?  For those who funded SuperPACs hoping to influence the way this country works, isn’t there some sort of direct funding option?  And maybe that direct funding has the benefit of being a bit less divisive and perhaps even actually creates jobs instead of talking about doing so?  

In raising the questions above, I am joining the finger-pointing fray and so I take myself to task.  In the words of a very smart friend, “It’s time to move forward.”  Chapel Hill resident Vicki Threlfall was not parroting slogans when she said that, as she continued to say it’s time to “focus on improving- not winning.”  

She’s right, Congress.  She’s right, State Legislature.  No more gamesmanship and no more brinksmanship.  No more late night votes, no more digging in and being unwilling to negotiate.  It’s time to do the job you were elected to do:  work for the betterment of this state and this country.  

It’s time to get out of some schoolyard mentality and stop the bullying.  Americans are united by the fact of our differences.  To the man driving in front of me the other day whose bumper proclaimed the need to “Defend Freedom” by “Defeating Obama”,  there are other car tushes out these asking for different freedoms to be protected that I’m guessing you do not countenance.  Aren’t we all entitled to ask for freedoms?  Isn’t that what joins us?  

Let’s go beyond the need to work together; elected leaders should respect the differences between them.  Is it a question of faith?  It’s deserving of respect?  Does someone highly value education?  That’s also deserving of respect.  No more sneering and belittling the values of others.  How is it that the baseline of behavior expected from most children isn’t required of our leaders?  It should be and we should demand it.  

Sadly, I feel a bit like Don Quixote writing this, tilting at windmills.  But if we don’t talk about how it should be and what we expect from the people to whom we give these jobs and – don’t forget- pay their salaries (and their fabulous healthcare plans), nothing will change.  

Also, I recently saw this, a map of what the country really looks like, with very few states being all red or all blue and I decided that purple is my new favorite color!

Please leave your suggestions below for how to incite civil discourse or write to me at

Good Use of our Money?

     I am a bit confused about something and I’m going to share my perplexity with you.  
     Let’s just say there’s already a law against something.  Let’s also say money is tight.  Schools need money, social programs need money (because more people need social programs)… I think we can all agree there’s just not enough money to go around these days.  
     Can we also agree that special legislative sessions cost money?  I’ve read it’s about $50,000/day.  I don’t know how much it costs to put a constitutional amendment before voters but it probably isn’t $0.  
     So, therein lies my confusion: North Carolina already bans same-sex marriage so why spend money we clearly don’t have to put that ban in the constitution?  I don’t understand how it could be made more illegal than it currently is.  Is doubling-down on this “illegality” worth more than aid to Hurricane Irene’s coastal victims?  Is it worth more than limiting which 4-year olds get more education?  Is it worth more than treatment for victims of domestic abuse or the mentally ill?  Some people clearly think so.  
     Well, like it or not the money has been/is being spent and we will all get to decide in May.   
     I have my personal, moral, humanistic code on this question but I write today as a Savvy Spender and so I have to wonder which fiscal conservatives think this is money well spent?  Which proponents of small(er) government are backing this enlarging of an already existing law?
     May I tell you what else I don’t understand?  In a state that has come a long way from a discriminatory past, why don’t our legislators learn from our own history?  There are plenty of people who say it’s a moral issue and, if that’s true for you, that’s your code. But why legislate everyone’s code?   It’s a religious issue for you?  Ok, I respect your faith but didn’t the nation’s founders call for a separation of church and state as they fled religious oppression?  
     There’s just so much I don’t understand.  Here’s another bit:  There’s a whole bunch of people who hate us just for being Americans.  I am an American and I wouldn’t want to be anything else.  I can’t imagine why that’s deserving of hatred and violence.  Suppose the folks behind al-Qaida formed a government and voted that to discriminate against Americans is okay?  While that’s less offensive than killing thousands of us and plotting to kill more, I believe its members would say its part of their moral code.  Isn’t there enough hate in the world that we don’t need more of it?  
As I am truly puzzled by this plan, I would appreciate hearing from someone with a different point of view.  Please leave a comment below or write to me at It’s an emotionally charged issue so I ask that all notes and comments be courteous.  Disagree and I’m happy to read it but any vitriol will be disregarded.  
     A final and unrelated note:  Last week I wrote about University Mall’s programming and I didn’t touch on specific retailers.  Well, here’s a postscript to that column:  I attended Chapel Hill 2020 this past week and the topic of shopping came up among my small breakout group.  I want to share that there was a rousing cheer for Roses.  That kind of emotional response to a store or a brand is something big corporations pay a lot of money to engender.  What do you think other businesses can learn from this?